Benefits Column

Why Marathoners Get Fat

While individuals may succeed in altering health-related behaviors for a limited time, it's difficult for many to create lifetime behavior changes. Employer appeals to reason, fear or penalties may only result in short-term changes. A sense of fun, teamwork or creating an emotional connection may provide more lasting results.

Monday, April 12, 2010
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I completed my first marathon on March 21. Now, the Bataan Memorial Death March is no ordinary marathon -- any event with "death" in the title is not.

The Bataan marathon is a 26.2-mile march through the desert of White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II. I had the privilege of participating in this event with 28 Wounded Warriors, 12 volunteers and a couple of friends.

This event is one of many included in Disabled Sports/USA's Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project. (Full disclosure: I'm on the DS/USA board.) The project's goal is to use active sports participation early in a severely injured soldier's rehabilitation process to ultimately foster return to military service or civilian employment.

Imagine my reaction when, two months into my training cycle, I read an October 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled, The Fleeting Benefits of Marathons. It suggested that long-distance events are the "exercise equivalent of crash diets," with little evidence that participation leads to lasting weight loss or lifetime-exercise patterns.

I'm a clinical physiologist and spent the early part of my career training elite athletes, including marathoners. Marathoners are an unusual bunch. I remember Dr. George Sheehan, the original "running doctor," telling me that anyone who ran for more than three miles per day was running for more than his health.

"Find that reason," he always encouraged me.

For many marathoners, that reason is to meet a self-imposed milestone. It's part accomplishment and part vindication for what they perceive as a hallmark in their lives.

And it is increasingly popular. Running USA reported that, in 2009, U.S. marathons posted another year of record participation as well as the largest percentage increase (nearly 10 percent) in more than 25 years. 

To prepare for a marathon, you've got to put in mileage. Fifteen and 20-mile training days take up the bulk of your weekends. While my training partner and I loved our time together, we're looking forward to getting our Saturdays back.

So, while marathoning is on the rise, it may also be true that marathoners get fat, as a reader of the WSJ article may infer. While I will not gain weight now that my marathon is over, I also will not maintain my Saturday training schedule.

What does my marathon have to do with you and your employees? I've lived a lifetime filled with regular exercise, five to nine fruits and vegetables a day, normal weigh-ins and no smoking. Only about three percent of Americans can say the same.

Fitting in those four behaviors is the daily equivalent of running a marathon for most people. Yes, they can do it for a period of time -- usually for a few weeks to months after the flurry of Jan. 1 resolutions. But a lifetime behavior shift feels to them like my Saturday training days. It's OK for a while, but who can do this forever?

Rising healthcare costs, however, are driving nearly half of large U.S. employers to put financial penalties in place during the next three to five years for employees who do not participate in certain health-improvement programs, according to a Hewitt Associates' survey.

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That may not be the best way to promote health-management, disease-management and wellness initiatives.

An article by Aaron Dalton on behavior change, published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, points out that, while marketers and scientists have relied on fear, reason and money to promote more responsible actions, such tactics don't result in permanent change.

In fact, humor, surprise and attractive design may achieve at least similar results with no ill will -- such as this piano-stairs experiment, shown in this YouTube video, which was created by Volkswagen's Fun Theory group and increased the use of stairs 66 percent vs. use of the escalator.

Let me give you a personal tip. Unlike the marathoners in the WSJ article, I am looking forward to participating in the Bataan March again. And this has nothing to do with a conversion to long-distance training.

I developed an emotional connection to an experience larger than myself. I was taken by both the Wounded Warriors' esprit de corps and the sense of honor and respect exuded by the regular Army participants. My relationship with friends who walked by my side and waited at the finish line deepened as well.

My suggestion to HR leaders is to consider instilling a spirit of fun, honor and respect around your organization's healthcare cost-containment initiatives. You may find you receive in return a level of enthusiasm and devotion that turns your employees into life-long health marathoners -- with no mention of death or penalties required.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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