Which Approach is Better: Healthy Activities or Life Skills Learning?

Does a life skills or healthy activities wellness programs maximize engagement and ROI?
Take great comfort in knowing that ALL great feats are accomplished one small step at a time
- Og Mandino

The primary goal of a health and wellness program is to help employees make “better” or healthier choices. One approach is rewarding them for making pre-determined healthy choices, like nutrition and exercise. Alternatively, a program can focus on a wide range of life skills employees need to overcome whatever challenges they determine are keeping them from being their best selves. 

Following is a look at two different approaches and how they address the most important goals for a health and wellness program:

  • Engagement
  • Positive change
  • Lasting change

Healthy Activities

A healthy activities approach seeks to engage and sway employee behavior through commonly accepted examples of better choices: 

  • Choose a salad for lunch
  • Take an apple to work for a snack
  • Walk at lunchtime
  • Get 10,000 steps a day

Through this approach, employees complete pre-defined nutrition and exercise activities to stay compliant and receive rewards or incentives. These programs often include exercise minutes or steps tracking through a wearable device.

It’s easy to see how any positive health activity is a plus for employees. Better nutrition and physical activity can increase mood, improve blood flow, and enhance one's sense of wellbeing. 

Moreover, the science is clear on how we are far more likely to learn through doing than without active engagement, so the “activities” approach is better than passive programs that offer only suggestions, readings, or videos. 

Limitations of Healthy Activities

At the same time, while any positive activity is better than the status quo, the health activities approach fails to maximize the potential for lasting change and return on investment.

While it’s true that active learning is better than passive, a healthy activities approach lacks the “personally meaningful1” requirement needed for learning and retention. It’s one thing to do an activity; it’s another to engage in it and learn a new behavior. For example, almost all of us can think of a class we were required to take that we did not find relevant or enjoyable. Looking back, we can see how we went through the motions to pass the class; however, we now find it much harder to recall that topic when compared to the ones we enjoyed and deemed relevant to our future goals.

Personally Meaningful Considerations

Learning and retention require our brains to be alert and our senses engaged so we can create strong connections to the new information. Our brain is most attentive when something is personally meaningfulto us - "relevant" to our goals, values, and immediate needs. It's the way our brains work. We seek to conserve energy, so our brains guide us autonomously through most of our day habitually and without much thought. We don’t think about brushing our teeth, washing our hair, or a routine drive to work. We ignore ads that don't appeal to our values and needs.  

Our brain is most attentive when something is personally meaningful to us - "relevant" to our goals, values, and immediate needs.

At the same time, we are very aware of exceptions or “errors” - the unexpected. If we're driving along and someone pulls in front of us, we quickly come to attention. In the same way, if our job, finances, or family are not going as we expect, our brain sees those things as “errors” that require focus and resolution. In brain science, it’s often referred to as our “negativity bias2” because we learn by exception.

Every day, our brains anticipate from one moment to the next - projecting what we expect to happen based on our senses and plans. When things are on track, we pay little attention. However, when things are not as expected, our brains go into overdrive by releasing chemicals to heighten awareness and learning. When we are concerned about our children, for example, that exception will occupy our attention as a pressing negative to be resolved. Almost obsessively, our brains will spin through thoughts and options to find ways to reconcile the exceptions. 

(As a side note, this is what leads to presenteeism. A person’s unmet needs or challenges are distracting them from fully focusing on the tasks at hand. They are going through the motions at work, but their brain is focusing on solving their more pressing life challenges.) 

Engagement Considerations

With a better understanding of the negativity bias and how we learn by exception, we can better understand the three ways to look at health and wellness engagement:

  1. Program activities address the personally meaningful needs of an individual and receive full attention
  2. Program activities don’t address the needs of an individual, but the incentives and rewards are meaningful enough for the individual to go through the motions
  3. The program activities have no personal meaning to immediate needs of an individual and are seen as a distraction from what’s more pressing. 

In a program with a narrow focus on limited activities like exercise and nutrition, only those in group 1 would be fully engaged and see any potential for lasting change. The other employees will either go through the motions with little value (group 2) or be left out altogether (group 3). Not only does this shed light on the typical health and wellness program participation rates in the 60’s%, but also how so few participants see a lasting change from narrowly scoped solutions.

Leveraging Personally Meaningful

The alternative is a program that offers a wide range of personally meaningful ways for employees to engage and begin where they see their most immediate need. Instead of a limited set of activities and lessons, the better alternative focuses on a broader range of challenges and life skills that goes well beyond salads and steps. 

Consider the following graph of WellVisor members’ self-reported immediate challenges:

WellVisor Members' Self-Identified Immediate Life Challenge

With such a large majority identifying anxiety, family, and finances as their immediate concerns (among others), it’s doubtful that exercise and nutrition will meet their immediate needs. Their challenges require other life skills like finance, meditation, relationship, and parenting. While it’s true that physical activity and diet can help with stress, the following report shows the reality that some employees are not yet ready for those options:

WellVisor Members' Action Taken

Instead, the activity selected report from WellVisor shows us a breakdown of the same group and what actions they were ready to take to address their challenges. From this report, we can better understand the downside of limiting program options to physical activity and nutrition; only a limited number of WellVisor participants (47.5%) would have found a viable path to begin addressing their challenges. 

Wrap Up

If the goal of health and wellness is to engage and aid as many individuals as possible, then the most successful program will offer a broad range of options to reach the widely diverse needs of all employees. Instead of pre-defined paths, the program will ask the employee where they have the most immediate need and how they are ready today to take action to begin addressing their needs. Moreover, the best programs will go further to offer an endless path of options to keep the participants learning and growing continuously, so they can progress through all their challenges and continue to grow where they need growth the most.

It’s not that exercise and nutrition are not essential life skills; instead, it’s accepting that some individuals will not see those skills as their top priority today. In addition, it means recognizing that the most important goal of health and wellness is for employees to grow and overcome their challenges - whatever it may be that's holding them back.   

The most important goal of health and wellness is for employees to grow and overcome their challenges - whatever it may be that's holding them back.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the path to positive lasting change is always through small successes that build on each other. When people grow their skills where they feel they are lacking, they gain more confidence, leading them to tackle even bigger challenges. Further, through their success and process of continued growth, they become empowered with a growth mindset that’s the foundation of building a high-performance culture.


1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6191053/

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/

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