People outside at the Game Developers' Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Official GDC: Flickr)
People outside the Game Developers' Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. (Official GDC: Flickr)

By Kamal Menghrajani

We all know we’re supposed to eat a healthy diet, get exercise and reduce stress. But a lot of people don’t find these things very much fun. Employers–who have seen their health premiums shoot up–are trying to inject some excitement into their employee wellness programs.

At the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco last week, Rajiv Kumar talked up ShapeUp–a platform that combines games and social networks to get employees revved up, engaged and, hopefully, more healthy.

ShapeUp works by dividing employees into teams and pitting them head-to-head in a challenge — for example, challenging teams to walk or run the most over the course of three months. The key component of ShapeUp is its social network, where employees can motivate each other by virtual high-fiving and trash-talking throughout the competition.

San Francisco-based Blue Shield has been using ShapeUp since 2010. “Think Facebook for health, if you will,” said wellness plan director Bryce Williams.

Creator Kumar claims his Rhode Island-based company has garnered results. “We published a whole host of clinical studies to show that these people are actually losing weight and maintaining that weight loss, which is exciting.” A “whole host” may be a bit of an exaggeration. Two we did find are here and here.

Despite its merits, the platform alone may not be enough. Southern California’s Life Technologies has been using ShapeUp since June, 2010, initially with mixed results. “It was effective in some challenges and not in others,” Erica Ullman, Global Wellness Manager for the company, told me.

Initially only 20 percent of their employees joined ShapeUp for a first competition focused on better eating habits. There was no incentive to do the challenge, other than the vague promise of better health.

For a different challenge, focused on getting active and moving more, the company gave away pedometers — and saw increased enrollment of 29 percent.

Several factors could account for the nine percent difference between the two challenges. But Ullman says, “We’ve learned that our population does respond well to incentives. It’s pretty much in the marketplace. If you reward an employee or spouse for doing something, they’re more interested in participating. If that’s the gateway for getting in, then we’ll support that.”

Blue Shield has also been using ShapeUp with incentives tied in, says Williams.

“By participating in ShapeUp Shield, you can actually earn a medical plan discount on your premium. But also we give some very small, yet hip, yet cool gifts and swag to those who win, or the most improved, or the best teams, as well,” he said.

While providing incentives for wellness is controversial – those opposed to it worry that the practice could translate into discrimination against people based on their health status – it seems to be working to promote healthier behaviors in this context.

Both Life Technologies and Blue Shield are using ShapeUp in addition to other initiatives focused at improving employee health. They recognize that part of their success is in providing a variety of activities for employees with different health goals to choose from.

Both companies told me that ShapeUp has become a popular choice with employees because they don’t have to pursue their health goals all alone.

“When you make it social, it does make it more enjoyable. Because, let’s be honest, wellness is hard enough work as it is, making sure you get enough exercise and eating right. So we should make it as fun and enjoyable as possible, rather than make it about suffering,” Williams said.

Social Networks: A Tool for Better Health? 22 March,2012State of Health

  • There are 5 published, peer-reviewed studies about the ShapeUp program, with several more to be published within the next 12 months. These are the three that were for some reason not mentioned in this article:

    Rajiv Kumar, M.D.
    Founder, Chief Medical Officer
    rkumar [at]

    • Lisa Aliferis, Editor

      Thank you for the links, Rajiv. The author did ask two ShapeUp representatives for studies. She received one and found another in her own research, which we linked to.

  • Chiropractor in San Diego

    It’s a good way to enliven having a routine at work. What’s more, it’s beneficial for their health. Has this kind of idea been tried by companies especially the big ones?

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