Over the past few years, workplace wellness programs have become increasingly popular among employers and health insurance companies as a means of encouraging people to live healthy lives and save on insurance costs.

I first noticed it when my employers offered me a discount on my health insurance premiums if I lived a healthier lifestyle. They indicated that if I met a certain set of parameters — through consistent exercise or certifying that I was a nonsmoker — I would pay less on my monthly health insurance premium.

Shortly afterward, my wife’s employer instituted its own workplace wellness program with its own set of health requirements. These included meeting weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure guidelines, as well as not smoking.

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If you didn’t satisfy the requirements, you didn’t get the insurance discount unless a doctor certified that the guidelines weren’t right for your body. After the first year, the company gave you credit if your statistics improved or you met its goals.

More recently, my wife and I joined a health care sharing ministry. The ministry charges a monthly fee if you are overweight, smoke, or have a pre-existing condition like high cholesterol. However, it also allows us to meet with a health care coach a couple of times a month. Our coach helps us work toward our health goals. In our case, that’s weight loss.

Why do employers, insurance companies, and health care sharing ministries care about you living a healthier life? And how can you take advantage of them without breaking the bank? Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Why Workplace Wellness Programs Exist

Ultimately, wellness programs exist to save employers and health insurance companies money while passing some of the savings on to you. It’s generally true that the healthier you are, the less you’ll use health insurance. This could help lower the premiums your employer must pay and the costs that health insurance companies have to reimburse.

The idea is that if you give someone a financial incentive to live a healthier life, he or she will likely work toward doing so. In many cases, insurance wellness programs aim to encourage weight loss, exercise, and quitting smoking.

At my first company, I automatically received an incentive for being a nonsmoker.

After that, I could earn even more discounts on my insurance for meeting weight and regular exercise goals. Employers and health insurers will both benefit as long as the wellness incentives they offer cost less than the amount of money they’d spend on premiums or in medical cost reimbursements. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

Earning Wellness Incentives and Avoiding Fees

Each wellness program has its own rules, and it’s important to understand how yours works. You should know how to earn incentive dollars or how to get to the point where you no longer have to pay a wellness fee.

If you don’t understand the ins and outs of your program, make sure to ask. You’ll probably find that your insurance company or your company human resources professional is more than willing to help you work toward a healthier lifestyle and explain how the wellness program works in detail.

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How My Health Care Sharing Ministry Program Works

My health care sharing ministry charges participants a fee to cover the cost of a wellness coach, who assists us in achieving our goals.

As I mentioned above, I’m attempting to lose weight. To that end, the company has a height-weight chart, used to determine the risk an individual’s current BMI poses.

Once I achieve my weight loss goals according to the BMI chart, I will no longer have to pay the monthly fee.

Until I get down to my weight goal, my health care sharing ministry lists me as a provisional member. However, it understands that life isn’t always easy, and things don’t always go according to plan. My wellness coach says that as long as I make progress toward living a healthier lifestyle, I can probably stay on the plan.

Unfortunately, the ministry doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions, so gastric bypass and other similar weight loss surgeries aren’t covered. However, standard health insurance is a whole different story. If you carry it, check with your insurer to see what the company does and doesn’t cover.

It’s important to realize that living healthier isn’t just about your weight. For example, if I wasn’t getting enough sleep or lived a super-stressed lifestyle, my wellness coach would work with me in those areas first before moving on to the weight issue.

I check in with my coach at least once a month, and more often if I like. So far, he’s been amazing, and he’s really understanding about everything we’ve discussed. I always look forward to talking to him.

What Is a Health Care Sharing Ministry, Anyway?

A health care sharing ministry is an alternative to a traditional health care plan, wherein its participants pay monthly “sharing amounts” that act in lieu of a premium to a health care company. Through paying this sharing amount, members can take advantage of shared medical benefits. This can include discounted doctor appointments, limits on out-of-pocket expenses, and a deductible similar to that of a traditional insurer.

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Some people prefer health care sharing ministries because of their affordable monthly costs — some plans, like those offered by Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHM), can set you back only $45 a month.

However, most ministries require you subscribe to the Christian faith.

Some even require you believe in a particular denomination or follow a specific moral or ethical code. Given that, health care ministries reserve the right to exclude coverage for services not consistent with their beliefs, such as paying for contraceptives or pregnancy termination.

That said, some ministries, such as Liberty HealthShare, have fairly wide-reaching criteria of what it means to be Christian. These ministries allow their members to worship and apply the Bible according to their own conscience and interpretation.

Health care sharing ministries aren’t for everyone. But if you’re Christian and looking for an inexpensive alternative to traditional insurance, they may be right for you. You can use CHM’s online search function to see if there are local resources available that are consistent with your individual religious practices.

How a Regular Health Insurance Program Works

Health insurance doesn’t work the same way. In the event that you continue to miss your wellness plan health goals, you aren’t removed from the plan as you would be in a health care sharing ministry. Instead, you just continue paying the higher fee or miss out on the wellness incentives that are offered.

If it isn’t medically safe for you to reach the goals outlined in the program, you can often get a doctor to sign a form to excuse you from participating.

In many cases, you can still get the incentive dollars with such a note. For instance, when my wife was pregnant, it was unreasonable for her to meet the requirements her company specified. So with a note from her doctor, we got the wellness incentives, anyway.

My Take on Workplace Wellness Programs

I was initially upset at the fee I’d have to pay until I lost 14 pounds for my wellness program. But ultimately, I knew that it would be good for me. I’m excited to set off on this journey because it will benefit both my health and my wealth. I hope you also see the same opportunity if your insurance has a wellness program.

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Easy, Free Ways to Lose Weight

Workplace wellness programs are one way to lose weight and live a healthier life, but they almost always cost money. If you’re trying to shed some pesky extra pounds, check out these low-cost and free recommendations.

1. Adjusting Your Diet

This is a tried and true method for losing weight, one that reaps greater rewards than just increasing your exercise.

“Your diet is going to have a much larger impact on the scale than any other method,” says dietician and exercise expert Brian Kiselstein. “The best part is you don’t have to invest any money into any fancy gym memberships or crazy weight loss supplements.”

2. Carbohydrate Detox

Kiselstein also recommends you partake in a short carbohydrate detox in which you consume few to no carbohydrates for a period of about a week.

“During this week you should consume plenty of water, eat lots of lean protein sources, consume an abundance of green nonstarchy vegetables,” he says. “After this week is over, you would then slowly reintroduce carbohydrates back into your system.”

3. Walking More

Here’s a simple, free way to up your calorie burning without having to invest in a gym membership.

“For anyone new to exercise, walking is a good place to start as it is very low stress and low impact, so it is ideal for clients who are overweight or highly stressed,” says National Academy of Sports Medicine-qualified personal trainer Eric Bowling of Ultimate Performance.

4. Smartphone App

For those counting their steps with a pedometer, or a free smartphone app, set high goals.

“Five thousand steps over a day is still classified as ‘sedentary,’” Bowling adds.

“You should quickly look to build this up toward 10,000 to 12,500 steps per day, which is the target we set for many of our body transformation clients at Ultimate Performance.”

5. Lifestyle Adjustments

Finally, make certain lifestyle adjustments. For instance, cutting out booze and getting more sleep are great ways to jump-start weight loss.

“One glass of beer supplies you with about 50 calories,” says health scientist and researcher Bart Wolbers of Nature Builds Health.

“A couple of drinks will surely add to your daily caloric intake while offering no nutritional value in return. Plus, alcohol also has hormonal effects that make you gain body fat, so that's double trouble.”

And we all have felt those late-night munchies after a few drinks. What becomes a few hundred empty calories easily becomes a “justifiable” 2,000.

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Bonus Tip: Getting Enough Sleep

Wolbers goes on to stress the importance of sleep. “Making sure you get seven to eight hours of sleep at night, which can vary for different individuals, already helps you lose some weight over a year,” he says. “Sleep should be just as much a priority for fat loss as diet and exercise.”

Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.