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It was a typical HR letter except that this time it was addressed to both me and my wife. I thought it might be an invitation to an event of some sort. Instead, it was an invite for us to participate in my employer’s wellness program. I’m not part of my employer’s insurance plan, but I wasn’t an accidental recipient: I got this request because several aspects of the wellness program are extended to folks like me and our domestic partners. We’d earn points for healthy activities and routine exams and be eligible for drawings and prizes.

And if I signed up, I’d get the added bonus of being endlessly harassed over lifting weights.

In the trade, “wellness” has a blunter name: “workforce health management.” There are two options: a surcharge added to your bill if you have a condition deemed unhealthy, or an incentive you can obtain for meeting a goal. The end result on your wallet is the same if you don’t meet the target—you just happen to pay at a different time. Insurance companies and employers love these plans because (in theory) they drive down medical costs. As to why I and others like me get invited, my nice side says it was a well-intentioned effort to aid my pursuit of healthiness, while my cynical side thinks it’s more about enlisting people for reasons of peer-motivation.

RELATED: The Cost of Healthy Eating

I don’t count myself as a big fan of the move toward wellness policies, particularly when your employer is doing the monitoring. I don’t want to worry about things like, “Gee, I wonder if they’ll still think I’m a team player if I don’t take that healthy cooking workshop during lunch.” On a brusque note, I don’t think my health choices are any of my employer’s damn business. When applying for jobs, I always check into the details of benefits as much as I can; it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m pretty sure one day I’ll run into a situation where a potential job’s interest in my HDL levels is a deal breaker.

Big Brother worries aside, there’s also the knowledge that I won’t fit neatly into any system’s profile of a “healthy person.” And there’s some truth to that: I could eat better and drop a few pounds. But even if I did, I’d still be in trouble. BMI is a key component of many wellness programs: a 2013 RAND survey identified “nutrition/weight” as a component of 79% of wellness programs, and they all use BMI or a proprietary analog. I’m not big by any stretch, but even if I dropped forty pounds, I’d show up as overweight at a BMI of 25. And unless they let me send in a doctor’s note saying I lift, I’d have to grin and bear whatever the penalty was.

Health condition score report. Stethoscope on medical background.

I bet a lot of people reading this would have a similar experience (if they haven’t already.) If you’re a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you almost certainly have a high BMI. You probably also deal with a few of the following:

  • Poor blood lipid profile
  • Joint issues
  • Sleep apnea
  • Reflux issues
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Acute injuries requiring surgery and/or PT
  • Chronic pain
  • Elevated heart rate

Some of these can (and should) be addressed medically, though it’s one thing to treat a problem and another to resolve it. But it’s more complicated than that for the competitive athlete, who manipulates bodyweight on a regular basis and who may take off-label pharmaceuticals at specific points in a preparative cycle. A battery of wellness tests taken the day before or the day after a contest or meet might have dramatically different results.

The insurance industry is regulated well enough that there are limits on surcharges such as those associated with punitive wellness initiatives, though that’s not much comfort for anyone currently on a tight budget, or who might be down the road if the laws change. From surveying different reports, a punitive surcharge for obesity could top $1,000 or more annually, depending on circumstances. These surcharges are definitely painful, but don’t think that you’re avoiding the pain because you’re in a promotional wellness program. You and everyone else at your job are just paying more at upfront, with an option for small reimbursements if you jump through enough hoops.

Ultimately, I can’t offer advice on what to do. Lifting weights with any amount of serious intent will cause most people to flub, at the very least, a wellness program’s BMI test. There’s no way around it. And when it comes to punitive programs, avoiding a test or weighing automatically triggers the surcharge, so you can’t sneak around it.

The best I can say is to be aware regarding both your privacy and paycheck. If you have a forum or a line of communication to your employer regarding changes in health policy, take advantage of this and let your concerns be known. Let them know you stand to be punished for partaking in a healthy activity that improves everything from metabolic panels to bone density. Keep an eye on the news; wellness programs are fairly new, and are being tested in lawsuits, including a few by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You may find the rules changing and your administrators scrambling to keep up.