Problems With Incentivising BMI Reduction and Alternative Solutions

I woke up this morning. And the first thing I see on my social media is a lot of my fitness community peers sharing this initiative by an Indian brand where they’re incentivizing their employees to reduce BMI by providing salary bonuses.

There have been quite a lot of mixed reactions to this. I wanted to express my views on it and talk of what’s possibly wrong with the initiative and what could instead be done to achieve the goals the brand is trying to.

Here’s what the CEO said on their official Instagram page:

A few things that I have in mind. I understand that whatever the brand is trying to do comes from a place of good intentions.

They’re trying to incentivise people to make healthy choices, but perhaps the way to go about it is not the best one.

To start off, let’s talk a bit about the things which are problematic here.

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The first would be assuming that all employees want to reduce their BMI.

And just by virtue of being part of the company, they now have been kind of put under obligation to become part of a process they did not consent for.

It is not my job as a fitness professional to tell others what their goals should be. It is my job to make them aware of the possible consequences of their actions and to show them what’s possible if they take care of their health.

And if they choose to make a change, then I help them get there. That’s how it works.

I’m a facilitator. I’m not a dictator of what their goals should be.

The people who have designed this program are assuming that all employees want to reduce their BMI and that all employees want to become healthy.

There’s nothing wrong with incentivising people to make better health decisions. But to impose a common goal on everyone. I think that is problematic.

They’re calling it a “fun health program”, but it is not necessarily fun for people who have health conditions which make it difficult for them to lose weight.

There are people with metabolic disorders who I’m sure are part of the company’s payroll. There are people who find it very hard to lose weight. And for these people, losing weight is not fun.

Even when they go on a very low calorie diet, they aren’t able to lose weight as easily as people with normal healthy metabolism. And it is not a fun program for people like this, especially when presented in the form of a competition.

Now the second thing.

The brand seems to be overlooking how social dynamics work.

When you incentivize an entire team’s success based on the contribution by individual members. If there’s an overweight member in the team because of whom your average BMI stays high, there’ll be a tendency to scapegoat that person. To point fingers at that person to make them feel guilty for not being able to reduce their BMI.

Imagine there are just two people in a 10-12 person team, who are very overweight, either due to their health conditions or due to their lifestyle choices. The cause could be anything. That’s irrelevant.

And they just don’t want to lose weight. This is something that they’re not interested in. But because they are not taking action to reduce their weight, the other members of the team use that as an opportunity to possibly bully them.

Or to point fingers at them and make them feel uncomfortable. They’re still doing their job as employees and providing a great service to the company.

But because of this initiative, they are being made to feel uncomfortable and being forced to do something which they are absolutely not interested in doing.

I don’t think the people in-charge have thought this thoroughly.

The third and the most problematic thing.

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Making weight loss into some form of competition.

Anyone who knows how weight loss works knows that different people lose weight at different rates.

You could be doing everything right. You could be doing the perfect number of steps day, three exercise sessions a week, eating perfectly.

But there are still factors which are not within your control when it comes to losing weight.

Some people have it easy because they may be genetically wired to feel less hungry.

Or they make better food choices because of how they have been conditioned throughout their childhood and adulthood.

Some people have it tougher because of medical reasons; because of environmental reasons.

And when you make weight loss into a game, it’s not a level playing field. Either due to genetic factors, environmental factors, biological factors, psychological factors.

It’s not a level playing field and it’s not a healthy form of competition. Because when you make weight loss into an ultimate goal, people can resort to any kind of means to get there.

If you look at photos of people from famines, you’ll see that everyone there has shrunk; you can see their bones sticking out. That’s because if you just stop eating. You will lose weight.

Now, imagine someone just for the sake of the salary bonus, drastically overhauls their entire diet.

They decide that all they will eat or drink are juices during this entire time. They won’t eat any solid food.

Will they lose weight? Yes.

Will they get a salary bonus? Of course.

Will they also trigger an eating disorder for themselves or suffer health consequences? Possibly, yes.

And then that becomes an additional burden on the medical system.

So you’re trying to fix a health issue here and you have started another health issue in its place.

I know that a lot of fitness professionals have their own opinion regarding eating disorders. But this is beyond our scope of practice. And should be left to mental health and medical professionals.

These are the main problems just over the top of my head based on what I’ve written in this quick outline for this podcast episode.

I have a few solutions in mind. Because I don’t just like to point out problems. I like to provide solutions so that this can be fixed.

The brand’s heart is in the right place. They do want to make a positive impact on their employees.

They’re not coming from a wrong place but they’re just not doing it the right way.

Here are a few suggestions.

This is the most important one.

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Incentivise the process and not the result.

Instead of incentivising weight loss, how many kgs you have lost, how many BMI points you have dropped. I understand the corporate world. They like to incentivize results; results over everything.

But that is not the way to go about it when you’re trying to make a positive change in the health of your employees.

So incentivise the process. Talk about how employees can incorporate more movement into their daily life and incentivise that.

Incentivise eating more protein; maybe a daily step target because most people are very sedentary.

You could incentivise less screen time.

Also have an upper limit to that so that people don’t do something crazy like 60,000-70,000 steps a day. So incentivize something about the process, but also take care that people don’t go overboard with it by having an upper limit.

This would require some kind of planning to execute properly.

The other thing would be to make your work environment less obesogenic.

I made an episode yesterday itself on the importance of environment when it comes to weight loss. If your work environment is obesogenic i.e., calorie-dense snacks are easily available, you have workspaces which don’t let people move about during the day, you have weird work policies where you have forced employees to just sit in their chairs throughout the day.

They don’t have time to move about. That is what is contributing to the problem in the long run.

If you could fix that. If you could make it a rule that every one hour, some bell would go off and employees would have to go walk for maybe five minutes and then come back to their desks.

Maybe introduce standing desks for employees and give them the option to switch,

You could have healthier food options in the pantry, in the snack section or whatever other provisions you have for lunch.

Make unhealthy options inaccessible. Make it easy for them to make healthier choices.

When you do that, actions would follow and the results will follow actions.

You have to address the problem at the root; not from the end point.

Make health accessible. That’s the whole point.

Don’t make weight loss into a competition.

It’s a very unhealthy way to look at things. This is what triggers eating disorders in people.

And if someone is already recovering from an eating disorder, you don’t know that. Because these are very personal problems.

Do you know how many people in your organization suffer from mental health issues? Suffer from depression? Have bipolar disorder? You don’t.

Eating disorders are very personal things. And you doing something like this could trigger an episode which gets someone back to where they were earlier.

So you’re trying to fix a health issue. Instead you might just trigger another health issue. So don’t make weight loss into a competition.

Instead organise competitions which focus on performance.

So you could have maybe a pushup contest. This is just something over the top of my head. You’ll come up with better ideas if you brainstorm a bit.

When people run marathons, they get a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. And that accomplishment is related to their performance, not to their weight.

A performance related outcome is always more preferable for competitive events. And when you sign up people for this, make sure you take their consent and don’t make them obligated to be part of it.

Send them some kind of questionnaire, like a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q), where they have given their consent that they have no health issues. And they’re cleared by their physician to take part in physical activities.

Make sure you do that.

And rewards for these things should be separate from salary.

That is important because as soon as you link salary to this, as soon as you put a monetary incentive to this. People will do all kinds of things to make sure that they are not missing out.

Disconnect the reward from a monetary aspect. Instead reward people with something which will help them carry this process further.

It could be maybe free access to the company’s gym if you have one.

It could be free sessions with personal trainers.

It could be free health counselling, where they are provided with dietary guidance. And maybe some kind of accountability coaching.

These could be rewards instead of the monetary incentives.

The bottom line here really is that you need to empower people to make the right choices. Overweight people are aware that they’re unhealthy. It’s not that they don’t know they’re unhealthy and out of shape.

They know that; they don’t need to be told what to do.

It is our responsibility as concerned well-wishers and as fitness professionals to make them aware of what’s possible; what a healthy lifestyle will do for them. And nudge them towards making decisions which made that happen.

But what they choose to do ultimately is a personal choice.

You can make it easy for them to make the choice, but you cannot make the choice for them.

And the only way you can help them in the process is by making it easy for them to do things which help them make better choices.

I don’t think the policy that the brand has implemented is from a place of malice. They do want to help the people, but they’re just not educated in this topic well enough to have made a better decision than this.

But I hope this post brings about some kind of awareness and maybe going forward, when brands try to make policies regarding health for their employees. They will consider the implications of it.

And make better policies.

If you have been trying to reach your weight loss goals for a while now, but are struggling a bit in the process.

It’s probably because of a lack of consistency, a lack of guidance or a lack of support.

If you’d like a 24×7 support system to hold your hand and guide you through the process till you get to your goals, you should consider 1-on-1 coaching with Workday Physique.

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