When it comes to improving the health and wellness of employees, the common approach appears to be that weight loss is an unquestionably good place to start. This is unsurprising given that 74% of US adults are overweight. Since higher weight levels have been associated with a variety of negative health outcomes, it makes sense to think that, by encouraging employees to lose weight, the overall wellness of one’s workforce will improve.
As is often the case, what seems obvious or intuitive turns out to be false when put to the test in rigorous experiments. A host of recent studies have uncovered a swathe of evidence that suggests that, while weight loss strategies are effective in specific cases, they aren’t the best place for employers to be putting their wellness boosting dollars and efforts.
To help employers make more scientifically informed and effective wellness decisions, three of the main experimental reasons for encouraging physical activity (PA) rather than weight loss are discussed below.
#1 Weight Loss Doesn’t Always Improve Health Outcomes
The experimental evidence suggests that weight loss doesn’t guarantee health benefits for overweight individuals. For instance, Dr. Glen Graesser, a professor of exercise physiology, found in his 2021 review of over 200 meta-analyses that weight loss is not consistently associated with a lowered mortality risk for obese individuals.
Of course, this is not to say that weight loss never decreases mortality risk. What it does show, however, is that in the scenarios where one would most expect to find a beneficial impact of weight loss on life expectancy, the effect is often not there to be found.
#2 Weight Loss Strategies Often Fail To Yield Sustained Weight Loss
Whether they’ve tried to do it themselves or have merely witnessed the attempts of others, most individuals know that weight loss can be difficult to achieve and maintain. Several studies support this observation. For instance, a systemic review of studies on the effectiveness of commercial weight loss programs found that 57% of individuals who began one lost less than five percent of their initial body weight. For many who are successful, maintaining the weight loss is quite difficult.
Failed attempts have been found to lead to weight-cycling or “yo-yo dieting,” a phenomenon where individuals who are in the process of implementing a weight loss strategy repeatedly lose and re-gain weight. Several studies have found that weight cycling can lead to negative health outcomes.
With that said, many people still experience success with their weight loss plans. As a result, what the experiments mentioned above might have revealed is that sustained weight loss requires highly individualized strategies that are implemented over a long period of time. Unless companies have a way of providing each of their employees with a weight loss strategy that has been tailored to suit their needs, they are unlikely to see a significant return on their wellness investments.
#3 Exercise Is Often More Effective
There is no denying that weight loss can improve health outcomes. However, for many of the circumstances in which weight loss may be helpful, PA appears to be a more efficient means of achieving the same beneficial outcomes. Dr. Graesser noted that “exercise training tends to be more effective at reducing VAT (visceral abdominal fat)” which is a kind of fat that wraps around abdominal organs deep inside the body and is highly correlated with negative health outcomes ranging from an increase in insulin resistance to a heightened risk of several cancers and heart disease.
Though weight loss may be an appropriate route to wellness for some individuals, employers aren’t going to be able to capture these benefits by incentivizing their employees to lose weight. As Dr. Graesser states, “shifting the focus away from weight loss as the primary goal, and instead focusing on increasing PA […] may be prudent for treating obesity-related health conditions.” Thus, organizations can increase the wellness bang for the buck by focusing on exercise instead of weight loss.