Our book title Surviving Workplace Wellness was intended to be figurative, but a new study shows it should be taken literally.
In the issue of Annals of Internal Medicine published today, a study of tens of thousands of people shows that a low BMI is associated with a higher death rate than all except the highest BMIs in women. In men, the lowest quintile of BMIs is associated with the highest death rate.
The study also shows that BMI is a poor predictor of death, as compared to body fat composition. This conclusion mirrors that of another study published last month.
Once again, the wellness industry strikes out. Their obsession with reducing BMI might actually be leading to a higher death rate among their customers’ employees. We say “might” because the study was careful to say that low BMIs “were associated with” a higher death rate, not “led to” a higher death rate. Wellness vendors and consultants love to conflate correlation and causality, but we can easily resist that urge, thanks to our triple-digit IQs.
Naturally, ShapeUp is one of the worst offenders. As you can see, they automatically associate “improved health” with lowering BMI.
So is workplace wellness killing people by getting them to reduce their BMI? Unlikely. It’s not just that the link may not be causal. There is a more important reason: ironically, wellness is too ineffective to harm people. Since basically no one ends up actually keeping the weight off using the pay-for-performance methods embraced by wellness promoters, there is no meaningful long-term reduction in BMIs. So even if low BMIs caused premature death, employees have nothing to fear from these programs.
And even those poor Highmark employees subjected to ShapeUp’s get-thin-quick scheme advertised below probably have nothing to worry about: the “163 employees” mentioned above only represent about 1.5% of participants, and given that Highmark fired ShapeUp, it’s likely that most of them gained the weight back anyway.