Why your fitness plan may be a losing game

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Employers are pushing fitness plans to lower insurance costs. Mine is no exception. Last year, I was invited to “invest in my health” by implementing a plan with a website that set health goals and recorded fitness activity.

I did so, and received an $1,000 discount off my family health insurance policy for achieving my goals.

This year, I’ve had to learn a new system. It has been a frustrating experience.

The trend in the health industry is to “gamify” fitness. That’s a good method to get people motivated, but this means implementation of arbitrary rules. Game theorists (i.e. a four-year old child) will tell you that arbitrary rules can be negative reinforcement to game participation.

This is what I am currently experiencing with this year’s effort.

Example: One goal is to “gradually lose weight.” I have lost 19 pounds. The standard for awarding points for the goal (set by the website) was to lose 20 pounds by a specific date. Unfortunately, nineteen pounds wasn’t good enough. There is no partial credit. There are no points awarded for the attempt. Once goals are set, they cannot be adjusted.

To truly be a fair game, the system should have awarded 95 percent of the total point value for the goal. 

For several other goals, I attended weekly online courses about nutrition, getting fit, and coping with stress.

The irony was not lost on me. I already spend hours at my desk in front of a computer. For better health, I need to move.  Death by webinar doesn’t improve anyone’s health.

Thus, the play of the game is counterproductive to the desired outcome.

Another goal set in the health game was to learn how to better cope with stress.  At several points during my use, the system underwent “upgrades” and experienced technical problems. These were poorly communicated to the user base. Error messages were vague. — “Oops something went wrong, please try again later.” My stepson’s account (my employer required all of my family to take part) didn’t work for two weeks. He was unable to even set goals or take the preliminary fitness check.

Again, the irony was not lost on me.

(In case you haven’t guessed, one of the ways I cope with stress is by blogging).

Add under valuing correct play to the game’s flaws.

Witness:

  • I earn two points for walking 5,000 steps a day. With my knees and weight, 5,000 steps is an awesome achievement. Lots of effort, little reward.
  • People who smoke and quit during the game earn more points than those who never start smoking. That’s a hidden penalty for proper play.
  • I can earn points for a flu shot, but not for any of the other adult vaccines recommended by the CDC, such as shingles and the pneumococcal vaccine. Both are more effective than the flu shot.

Thankfully, participation is voluntary. Even before the program, I used technology to improve my health.  I will continue to do so outside of the program. I’ve had great success in using fitness and health trackers to improve my life. That will be the subject of a future post.

The bottom line, though, is the current program being offered by my employer is not a good return on investment. We’re anticipating a discount of around $1,000 again this year. When I calculate the amount of time I spent playing the game and compare that with my salary, I realize it would have been more financially wise for me to not take part.

If a game is arbitrary, counterproductive, under rewards correct play and has a poor return on investment, why should anyone play? I’ll certainly give more consideration to participating next year.

Meanwhile, I better retake that coping with stress course again.

Published by Scott Davis

Former newspaper journalist, now government webmaster. Life-long geek.