Man running while pushing a baby trike - Runners at 1st Annual Rock 2 Rock 5 Mile Fun Run

The long-term benefits to living a healthy lifestyle aren’t news to anyone. Countless studies have shown that a balanced diet and regular physical activity prolong lives, diminish the likelihood of preventable diseases, and lower healthcare costs over time.

However, there are also many short-term benefits to living a healthy lifestyle. One of them is an economic incentive. Many employers and insurance companies have implemented monetary incentives for healthy eating and exercise habits and/or changes. For you, the monetary reward is immediate, for employers and insurance companies, the immediate return is seen in higher employee productivity and less frequent doctor visits.

One study by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health found that “58% of large employers are offering money, insurance discounts or other inducements this year to workers who manage their weight or engage in other activities to improve their health.” That percentage rose from from 52% in 2010, and 49% in 2009.

“This is the next evolution in trying to squeeze costs out by not incurring them in the first place,” said Sean Slovenski, chief executive of the firm handling rewards for Humana.

IBM employees are able to sign up for two of three rebate programs to receive up to $300 in cash per year. They will earn $150 for each of: Personal Vitality Rebate, Physical Activity-Nutrition Rebate, or Children’s Health Rebate.

Affinia began an employee health plan in 2004, called a “Health Reimbursement Account” – which the company credits each year ($1,000 for singles, $1,500 for singles with one dependent and $2,000 for families). “Medical and drug expenses are deducted from these accounts as services are received during the year, while preventive services are paid at 100% and not deducted from these accounts.” Since the pilot program began, the growth of medical benefit expenses has been 1 percent per year, well below national averages of 8 to 9 percent.

Some complain that the wellness incentive programs benefit only those who live healthy already, and hurt people with pre-existing conditions, but many programs actually target employees who already have illnesses – like diabetes.

United Healthcare has a plan that offers diabetic employees between $200 and $600 toward yearly health care costs — along with some free prescriptions and doctor visits — if they take their medicine, see their doctors and monitor their blood sugar. Essentially, they are financially incentivizing things that people are (or should be) doing already. Similarly, HCA began offering diabetic workers in the corporate offices $400 a year toward medical costs if they go to 10 counseling sessions with diabetes educators.

Other insurers are also subsidizing exercise, like Medica. If you join a gym, they will pay up to $20 of the monthly membership fee. You can also track your progress in a free online system. Greg Bury, a spokesman for Medica, says “Members can track their workouts, do meal planning, and engage with a personal fitness coach.”

Under the new Affordable Care Act, we may see a huge expansion among these types of programs. In 2014, the law will allow employers to reimburse workers for up to 30% of health insurance costs for meeting health goals, such as losing excess weight or controlling cholesterol levels. The current federal reimbursement limit is 20%.

Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, said “[employees who are healthy] are overpaying almost twice as much for the unhealthy: the obese, the smokers, people like that. You, an employee who is healthy and doesn’t smoke, are subsidizing the medical claims, with your premiums going up every month, to pay for someone who smokes, for someone who is obese.”

Check with your employer or insurance provider to see if there are any rebates or wellness programs for which you qualify. Healthcare is expensive enough – you may as well get rewarded for living healthily.

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