Feature Article - May/June 2008

Their Good Health

Inspiring Wellness with Smart Incentives

By Emily Tipping

century ago in America, you were far more likely to become ill or die due to infectious diseases, like pneumonia, influenza and tuberculosis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). But the medical community and others mobilized to create vaccines, improve the environmental and social conditions in which people lived and learned, and develop new health care technologies to make these diseases a much smaller threat to our health. Now, new threats have risen to take the place of infectious disease: chronic diseases, which are crippling our health care system and will contribute a large part of the more than $2.8 trillion dollars we'll be spending on health care costs by the year 2011 if we continue the status quo.

Amazingly, nearly three-quarters of healthcare claims can be attributed to an individual's lifestyle. The CDC further states that three health-damaging behaviors—tobacco use, lack of physical activity and poor eating habits—are the cause of much chronic disease and early death, with a full third of all U.S. deaths each year attributable to these behaviors.

But like the pioneers at the turn of the 20th century who drastically reduced the negative impacts of infectious disease, health care professionals, business leaders and even citizens themselves are today able, if empowered, to have a major impact on the negative effects of chronic disease—by effecting a complete 180-degree turn from a reactive approach to illness to instead taking a proactive approach to preventing illness.

The benefits of changing behaviors are numerous. The CDC reports that within several months of quitting smoking, the smoker coughs less, has fewer respiratory symptoms and has increased lung function. After 15 years, all other things being equal, the former smoker's risk for heart disease is nearly the same as that of a lifelong nonsmoker. Simply losing 5 percent to 7 percent of one's body weight, if overweight or obese, can help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes for those at high risk. Taking part in regular physical activity can not only help control weight, but also reduce the risk of heart attack, colon cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The CDC reports, "Developing chronic diseases is not an inevitable consequence of aging; in many cases their origins are grounded in health-damaging behaviors practiced by people every day for much of their lives. Evidence indicates that with education and social support, people can and will take charge of their health."

Surely you see where we're going here. Changing lifetime habits and behaviors is hard and takes constant encouragement and motivation. Incentive planners—well-versed in the language and methods of motivation—are uniquely poised to help their companies have a major impact on people's health. And the benefits don't just flow downward—the benefits flow right back to your company in lower healthcare costs and higher productivity.