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Does Today’s NY Times Spell the End of Corporate Weight Loss Programs?

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

They say: “Vivaldi didn’t write 400 violin concertos. He wrote 1 violin concerto 400 times.”

Whether you agree with that assessment or not (or whether, like us, you could care less because your idea of “classical music” is Meet the Beatles), the same is true of They Said What: the 200 seemingly different posts on this blog are really the same post 200 times, in that we always say the same thing, albeit a bit differently.

Actually ours are five different posts, an average of about 40 times each because we say five different things:

  1. Wellness is a waste of time and money that is now proven to make spending increase;
  2. Wellness can harm employees;
  3. Wellness vendors lie;
  4. You cannot pay, bribe, shame, fine, coax, cajole, threaten, browbeat or embarrass employees into losing weight;
  5. Even if you could, it won’t save you any money.

Today’s theme is #4. Obesity is a complex biochemical phenomenon that is poorly understood both by the finest minds and also by wellness vendors.  The only thing the former agree on is that you can’t cure obese patients by with finances, so naturally that’s what the latter advocate, because, like Willie Sutton said about robbing banks, get-thin-quick contests are where the money is.

We have already called out ShapeUp, Wellness Corporate Solutions and HealthyWage for these worthless and hazardous programs. They all know better but in wellness, filthy lucre trumps integrity.

Still, these companies couldn’t sell this nonsense if you didn’t buy it, and now there is a terrific study in the New York Times (a preview of a study coming out in Obesity) on why you shouldn’t buy it. The study tracks what happens to “Biggest Loser” contestants after the show ends. It turns out [Warning: SPOILER ALERT] that…

…are you ready for this?…

These contestants have already gained most of their weight back.

Usually we point out that because corporate get-thin-quick contests count only active motivated willing participants and don’t count non-participants or dropouts, self-selection accounts for a large chunk of the alleged favorable outcomes. However, who could be more motivated and self-selected than a participant on a reality show, one that requires multiple rounds of auditions and that, for winners and runners-up, brings the promise of at least temporary wealth and fame?  You can’t ask for more motivation than that.

And yet…

These contestants have already gained most of their weight back.

Are you noticing a theme here?  We recommend reading the article in its entirety. It turns out that your body “fights very hard to gain the weight back,” as the article says. Contestants’ metabolisms consistently and significantly slowed following the initial weight loss, meaning that 13 of the 14 contestants are actually worse off than if they hadn’t been on the show in the first place. The measured change in metabolisms isn’t trivial — it’s many hundreds of calories a day.

The beauty of this study was how carefully these folks were tracked, and how motivated they were to stay thin. Biochemistry trumps motivation.

And of course, we are happy to help you get out of your contracts with these vendors and demand your money back. Then maybe you can spend that money on something with a higher benefit-to-cost ratio than get-thin-quick programs — like, as Dee Edington said a decade ago, flushing it down the toilet.

Or Quizzify.  The effect of increasing one’s knowledge of the healthcare system does not “wear off” after the contest ends, and at the very least, employee metabolisms won’t slow down.

Update, May 3: It was pointed out that this study was only for morbidly obese people and they might have a malfunctioning metabolism to begin with. And it is uncontrolled. Both are of course true…and if this were a standalone study reaching a dramatically different result from others, those criticisms would carry weight. However, all this study does is confirm what other studies have already shown:  for many reasons it is very hard to lose weight. The difference is that these subjects were highly motivated and totally self-selected to be successful at it…and yet…


  1. Dr. Jon says:

    Yes! Certainly no surprise- Same results as every other weight loss initiative over the past 3 decades! Maybe, just maybe we can stop subjecting people to these abominations – Maybe?? – Dr. Jon


  2. Sam Lippe says:

    So weight-loss challenges are done, screening is a joke, and annual checkups are harmful. What’s left for the wellness ignorati?


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      This question assumes wellness vendors and other members of the Wellness Ignorati care about employees or for that matter employers. Wrong. Theirs is a pure revenue-maximization model. (By contrast I think corporate wellness staff, and coaches working for wellness vendors, do care about employees.) They will keep doing this stuff until corporate human resource departments get internet connections.


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