What I had to Say About my Company Fitness Challenge

When I am not working as a mind-body eating coach, I am a health actuary in my spare time. For the last few years, my company has had a fitness challenge. The point of this challenge is to count steps (or convert other fitness activities to the number of steps) so the company can get to a certain number of steps as a firm wide goal. You can join a team or join by yourself and there are prizes for participation offered, from all expense paid trips to gift cards.  This activity has always bothered me and this year I decided to speak up.  So this morning, I sent the organizers this letter. 

Hi John and Sue, 

I wanted to respectfully submit a different perspective about the company fitness challenge. Since we are an actuarial firm, has anyone looked at the data surrounding the fitness challenge? How many people participated who were not already regular exercisers? How many new exercisers kept up the exercise after the challenge ended? What is the purpose of the fitness challenge? Is there any data to support that challenges like this actually improve health in the long run?

I ask these questions because in my spare time, when I am not working as a health actuary, I am a coach who helps people unhook from disordered eating and unhealthy relationships with food and body. And while it seems counter intuitive, it can be unhealthy to worry about food and body too much. 

Our culture bombards us with health-ism messages non-stop; on tv, in advertising, in books, magazines, and social media. These messages often promote unattainable ideals and cause undue stress and worry about how we move and what we eat.

I get concerned, therefore, when the pressure to move our bodies starts coming from work too.

Our fitness challenge concerns me in the way that it supports ableism (defined as discrimination in favor of able bodied people). How are disabled people or people struggling with health issues supported or benefitted by this challenge? How do you think the employees feel who have no desire to participate but feel pressure from other employees to join in or feel judgment that they are not fit?

You may also have people who become even more obsessed and disordered and living for the numbers on their Fitbit.  Movement should be joyful and natural and fun and not mechanical and measured.

If the goal of the challenge is well being, then how can the company encourage its participation without making it ableist and elitist? I remember being at our company Christmas party a few years ago and watching the office marathon runner receive her recognition for walking the most steps and it just felt wrong to be rewarding people for something that they already do and that they love.

Are financial rewards also being given for the person who read the most books in their spare time, volunteered their time or painted the most pictures?  

If we are going to have a challenge, I’d rather see one that helps encourage people to get enough sleep, reduce stress, find hobbies they love, try meditating, not eat lunch while working at their desk, or try something new in life.  People who love movement can choose movement, but it would be great if people who don’t love movement have other options that also lead to increased well being.  

Thank you for allowing me to present an alternate perspective to the challenge. I know many people might enjoy the challenge and the accountability and camaraderie in getting out and moving, but I kindly challenge the committee to find a way to make any corporate wide activity accessible and inclusive to all employees without shaming anyone, encouraging disordered behavior, or rewarding people for doing what comes naturally to them but may not come naturally to others.

Thank you for your time,
Elizabeth Hall

What do you think? Does your company have a fitness challenge? Do you wish they didn't? How would you improve it of you have the chance? Can you respectfully submit your suggestions? I'd love to hear your ideas!