For years, employers offered wellness incentive programs to their employees to live healthier lifestyles, but an April study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) cast more doubt on such programs.

The New York Times headline on the recent JAMA study, “Employee Wellness Programs Yield Little Benefit, Study Shows,” set the tone. The study looked at 33,000 workers at BJ’s Wholesale Club over a year and a half. Workers enrolled in the wellness program reported that they learned to exercise more and watch their weight, but the research found no significant differences in outcomes like lower blood pressure, sugar levels, or other health measures, and no significant reduction in workers’ health care costs.

The Times noted concerns over the privacy of employee data in such programs, collected via surveys and biometrics. Employees were assigned by random to the program, comparing the results to those randomly not enrolled.

But there are indications that some wellness programs are working, through a combination of individual motivation, sweetened financial incentives, and “gamification,” — turning healthy living into a social competition.

Activity trackers are one key to wellness

One such example is life insurance company John Hancock. The New York Times highlighted a big announcement by John Hancock last September: “Life Insurance Offering More Incentive to Live Longer.”

By wearing an activity tracker and meeting certain activity goals, as well as purchasing healthy foods and enrolling in online health education courses, Brian and Carla Restid of Howard, Ohio, who have policies with a combined death benefit of $350,000, have been able to save close to $3,000 over the four-year period spanning John Hancock’s original pilot Vitality Active Rewards program, and last September, when John Hancock mainstreamed Vitality into every life insurance policy it underwrites going forward. (Vitality is run by a South African company that works with insurers around the world on similar programs).

“We are still living with our Fitbits every day,” Carla says. “This gave us a platform to really look at where we wanted to go in life, to try to keep our bodies as fit as we could, without becoming real health freaks. I’m not going to tell you that we exercise at the gym two hours a day. That’s not what happens.”

As the Restid’s cost savings exhibit, the proper incentives can make a big difference, such as substantial discounts on hotels and groceries. They earn more points by having their height, weight, BMI, and other data collected by Vitality through its partner Quest. Good numbers on blood pressure, cholesterol, and the like translate into more Vitality points. “This is real money,” Brian says.

Brian turned 66 this month, and Carla is 67, and one motivator that a life insurance company can count on is the beneficiaries — children and grandchildren — of the life insurance policies. In fact, the Restids urged John Hancock to open up the initial program, cheerleading its benefits through a segment about the couple filmed by John Hancock and featured on its Web site.

“It’s important how we treat our bodies, and what we put into our bodies,” Carla says. “My slogan is, the best is yet to come, so we really want to live that out on a day-to-day basis.”

After a slow start in 2015, John Hancock’s program is gathering momentum. Today, John Hancock Vitality policyholders are taking nearly twice as many steps as the average American, according to the company. “They are recording an average of 23 healthy activities every month – nearly 300 activities a year (including walking, swimming, getting a health screening, [and] taking an online course, for example,” the company states in response to an email inquiry from HealthTap.

Apple Watch wellness benefits highlighted by RAND study

A recent study conducted by RAND found that when Vitality is combined with an Apple Watch, a wearer’s number of active days increased by nearly 31 percent, and that participants who had the highest level of inactivity and body mass index levels improved more than other groups, increasing physical activity by 200 precent in the U.S. The study also found that high-intensity activity days increased by 52 percent.

With these findings in mind, employee wellness programs might want to look at the John Hancock Vitality example, and keep on continually improving their offerings.

“Increasing physical activity, irrelevant of total steps, should absolutely be the global goal,” says HealthTap physician Kristen Dall-Winther MD FAAFP. “I would advise patients, in fact, to avoid being married to a number with their activity trackers, just as we do with trying to get folks to detach from the number on the scale and focus instead on how they are feeling. When patients are not able to let go of the actual number, we find some who feel as though they have failed when they reach only 9200 of their 10,000 goal steps, when in fact their baseline is 4200 steps and those extra 5000 should be celebrated! Kids especially like the virtual rewards that often come with achieving this or that goal, and parents and kids can serve as motivators for one another.”

If you need help determining an exercise program that fits your goals and unique health and lifestyle, reach out to your doctor. They can work with you to develop a workout routine, paired with your wearables, that is healthy and sustainable for you.


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Scott Mace

Writer at HealthTap. You may have read my work at HealthLeaders Media, BoardWatch, InfoWorld, or even the Village Voice if you go back far enough.

2 thoughts on “Wellness programs can work, despite discouraging studies

  1. Great article Scott! Thank You for allowing us to share our John Hancock Vitality story!
    In good health,
    Brian and Carla Restid

  2. Thanks Brian! I enjoyed speaking with you both.

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