Don’t start the work New Year by sponsoring a weight loss contest.

A list of things that might sound OK on the surface but don’t stand up to any level of introspection of others’ lived experiences

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC
Jan 6 · 4 min read
Weights, a tape measure, fruit, and a scale — all things commonly associated with New Year’s resolutions
Weights, a tape measure, fruit, and a scale — all things commonly associated with New Year’s resolutions
Exercise

Almost 1/3 of Americans make New Year's resolutions. A staggering number of the resolutions made by people are related to weight loss (37 %), exercising (50 %), and eating healthier (43%).

And that’s fine when the New Year’s resolution can be made with the extent of its privacy completely controlled by the person making the resolution.

But bringing New Year’s resolutions into the workplace as a group event as a “morale builder” is a terrible idea, and may backfire. Making it a contest is even worse. Food is a surprisingly unsafe work subject because:

  1. There are numerous cultural traditions around food — what might be great for one group might be banned by another.
  2. 9 % of the American population will have disordered eating at some point in time in their lives.

Why are work-based weight loss or healthy eating programs a problem?

The problem isn’t weight loss or healthy eating ideas being implemented at work, per se. The devil is always in the details — in this case, how the ideas are implemented.

If the weight loss/exercise/healthy eating program is sponsored by an executive in the management chain of the participants:

  • Individuals may feel under undue pressure to participate.
  • Individuals who don’t participate may be perceived as having a disability, and that perception gives them ADA rights even if they aren’t actually disabled.

People who don’t participate regardless of the reason:

  • may perceive they are receiving less “face time” with the sponsoring executive.
  • may perceive they are being viewed less favorably by the executive because of their non-participation.
  • will be excluded from accessing rewards or recognition given to the event “winner”.

Weight loss, exercise, and healthy eating programs, unless specifically crafted to be equal, can discriminate against people with disabilities, women, older individuals, and people of color.

Making the event “voluntary” is nowhere near enough because all of the following are true:

  1. People with pre-existing disordered eating can be triggered by weight loss, exercise, and healthy eating contests.
  2. Women are more likely to be overweight than men.
  3. People who identify as BIPOC are more likely to be overweight.
  4. People over the age of 45 are more likely to be overweight.
  5. Different ethnicities have diverging views on weight. BIPOC-identifying individuals are woefully underrepresented in clinical trials, and weight-loss is no exception.
  6. Some weight issues are actually DUE to a disability, such as taking certain medications that cause weight gain or disabilities like metabolic disorder.
  7. Some weight issues are associated with a disability, such as the connection between poor mental health, the pandemic, and weight gain.
  8. If exercise programs don’t have accessible alternatives, they inherently discriminate by assuming that all people who want to participate can walk or run (the two most common examples).
  9. There are privacy issues in play here. Who has access to the weight numbers or even the fact that you are registered or may have dropped out partway? There are specific regulations about how employers can (and can’t) access people’s personal health information.
  10. To get around the privacy concerns, some contests require that individual participants privately track information via an app or website. However, if the tracking tool doesn’t meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA (and I haven’t seen one yet that does, Peloton was the latest to be sued last month), people who use assistive technology won’t be able to participate.

Alright, I am convinced. What am I allowed to do then?

It’s not all doom and gloom. Start with having a disability/diversity professional review the program under consideration to ensure it doesn’t run afoul of one of the ten speedbumps I identified in the previous sections. In general,

  • Organization-wide programs, such as offering private access to health coaches or discounts if people want to sign up privately for Noom or Weight Watchers, are perfectly fine.
  • Programs that suggest logging the number of minutes of exercise rather than restricting the exercise to a specific type are probably OK. However, you are still going to be leaving some people out, including those with temporary injuries and people with a history of eating disorders compounded by overexercising.
  • Having zoom meetings where people demo how they cook something and share their recipes is also fine. Best practice would be to have a sign-up sheet and not automatically reach out to women to see if they are interested.

Employees have every right to expect that they all receive equal and fair treatment — and that means:

  • non-triggering, accessible alternatives;
  • that use WCAG compliant tools;
  • that don’t discriminate based on an individual’s ability level, ethnicity, age, or gender;
  • that don’t unduly call out one particular group of people for special treatment based on their gender or ethnicity.

Conscious Being

The Lifestyle Publication for Disabled Women.

Sign up for Conscious Being Occasional.

By Conscious Being

Get the (occasional) latest news from the publication for disabled women by disabled women. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

Written by

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

Conscious Being

The Lifestyle Publication for Disabled Women.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

Written by

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

Conscious Being

The Lifestyle Publication for Disabled Women.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store