How Different Rewards Can Make Americans Care About Good Health

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Source: iStock

Source: iStock

We don’t have to tell you how hard it can be to eat well and exercise. Our (educated) guess is that you already know how hard it can be because you have the same biological drive to stuff your face with sugars and fats that we do, because you face the same daily cacophony of sophisticated fast-food and snack marketing that we do, and because you are surrounded by the same culture of stubborn excess that we are. These are known challenges, antagonists in every story that takes place at the intersection of food, health, and economics.

But we’d be damned if we just sat back and let the antagonists run the show. The United States has been grappling with these issues for over half a century and the battle has been enormously expensive, both in terms of dollars spent and quality of life lost. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition (PCFSN), 25% of the U.S. adult population and 17% of the child population is obese. At an individual level, obesity increases average medical costs by 42%, or $1,429 per year, and levies an unquantifiable quality-of-life tax on those affected. At a national level, obesity-related illnesses carry an estimated annual cost of $190.2 billion — almost twice what the federal government wants to spend on food assistance in 2015.

Here is the truly harrowing part of the story: despite monumental local, regional, and national campaigns to promote healthy eating and exercise, the number of obese Americans is still expected to increase dramatically over the next 15 years. According to research highlighted by the PCFSN, half of all adults in the U.S. are projected to be obese by 2030, and costs will only scale in step with this growth.

It’s a gestalt process, but our national health data is really just the sum of our individual behavior. Daily decisions about diet and exercise aggregate into annual snapshots, and these line up to form the trends that we have observed over the past 30 years and serve as the basis for the projections for the next 30. So if we want to know why there is such a massive health problem in the U.S., and if we want to know how to change the trend, we should approach the issue from a micro rather than a macro position.

To be clear, there is certainly room for positive social and political reform in how we deal with health, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we waited up for politicians. This means identifying and embracing the most effective healthy living strategies as individuals.

Source: Thinkstock

Get out there and log some miles, just don’t run in the middle of the road like this guy. | Source: Thinkstock

What makes for an effective healthy living strategy?

National health data show that in the current environment, most people either neglect to make good decisions about their health or worse, make outright bad decisions. According to the PCFSN, only about 33% of Americans get the recommended amount of physical activity each week. Incredibly, and outrageously, more than 80% of both adults and children do not meet basic guidelines for aerobic and muscle strengthening activities. Clearly, whatever strategy is at play is not effective.

This failure of the status quo hasn’t gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs and business leaders, particularly those neck deep in the development of gamification. Gamification uses the incentive structures developed by game makers to encourage some specific behavior. Everything from loyalty and rewards programs run by retailers to how parents deal with children follows the logic of gamification. The trick, of course, is finding an incentive that actually produces the desired behavior. A $1 coupon for milk will probably fail to motivate shoppers to go out of their way to go grocery shopping, but a 5% discount on all dairy products might succeed.

Applied to health and fitness, this means developing rules and rewards for healthy behavior. And because the national health data is what it is, we know that the simple reward of being healthy is often not enough to motivate people to eat well and exercise. We need something more, a greater incentive — let’s say something with a direct impact on our wallets.

This is an approach that has become popular for employers looking to save on healthcare costs and to increase productivity, and many companies have developed gamified health and wellness programs. Benefitspro reports that nearly two-thirds of employers are using some sort of gamification strategy to promote employee engagement with health and wellness programs, and nearly one-third of employers say they will be adopting more gamification strategies over the next year. The specific rules and rewards for these programs vary, but they follow the same general themes: eat well and exercise, and get something extra in return.

Employees of large corporations aren’t the only people who can be players in a health and wellness game. Because of the enormous cost savings that result from preventative action, more and more health insurance companies and health care providers are developing rewards programs for customers or patients. So if you need some extra motivation (and let’s be honest, the data suggest that we all need a little extra motivation), talk with your employer or health insurance provider about any health and wellness programs they may offer.