Workers of America, Lose Weight!

Employers can help fight the nation's obesity epidemic, experts say

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By
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Sept. 6, 2004 (HealthDay News) -- Americans continue to lose the battle against gaining weight in a big way -- estimates show that 64 percent of U.S adults over age 20 are either overweight or obese.

While it's well known that all those extra pounds lead to significant health risks, what may be less obvious is the impact on U.S. business.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that overweight and obese Americans cost the country more than $117 billion each year, much of it passed on to employers through lost productivity and rising health costs.

Now, health experts are saying employers should get into the business of helping their employees maintain a healthy weight.

The level of American obesity has become a "social phenomenon," said Dr. Robert McLellan, a spokesman for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

"Ask the question: What has changed in our society? It's not our genes. It's not that we're weak-willed. There's been a shift in our nutritional environment and in our health culture," he said.

But the battle isn't lost, McLellan said, adding there's much employers can do to fight the obesity epidemic. "Employers have the capacity to affect the social change rippling through the culture. We spend 40 hours or more at work. Employers have more leverage power than your average family doctor, who you might see maybe once a year," he said.

To help employers help their workers to help themselves, the ACOEM has made the fight against obesity the focus of its 2004 Labor Day Checklist, a quick-tip health sheet produced each year on topics of national concern. According to the organization, there are many simple ways employers can help improve employee health, no matter the size of the business.

"Make sure bottled water is available as an alternative to soda," said McLellan said. "That's something an employer of any size can do."

The group also promotes at least one casual work day a week, citing a study from the American Council on Exercise that found a link between casual dress and increased activity in the workplace.

Among it's other recommendations, the ACOEM checklist includes the following tips for employers:

  • Implement an employee wellness program that helps employees adopt a healthy lifestyle.
  • Provide educational material on healthy lifestyles.
  • Encourage employees to walk to the cafeteria instead of eating at their desk.
  • Encourage the use of stairways.
  • Support physical activities, including breaks throughout the day.
  • Allow enough time for lunch so employees may fit in a walk or trip to the gym.
  • Look at schedules with an eye toward decreasing fatigue, a cause of bad eating habits.
  • Provide healthy food choices in the cafeteria and in meetings.

For employees, the group recommends some of the following:

  • Participate in workplace wellness activities.
  • Find non-food alternatives to stress reduction.
  • Walk or bike to work if possible.
  • Take frequent activity breaks during the day.
  • Make healthier choices when lunching or snacking.

The ACOEM also encourages offering employee health club memberships for companies that can do so. Some larger corporations have adopted a more hands-on approach.

At its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters, national retailer and wholesaler Big Lots offers wellness programs, healthy foods at its cafeteria, and a 24-hour on-site fitness facility with a personal trainer.

"I think it's a nice perk for the employees," said Jeanne Rogers, wellness and community relations manager for Big Lots. "It's a great stress reliever."

Rogers said the approach pays dividends for the company, too.

"By investing in our associates and helping them keep fit, we may help with their energy and productivity," she said.

Mary Sevenoff, Big Lots' advertising/print manager, agreed. "People are so busy today; it's nice to have a facility on the grounds. It lifts my whole spirit and helps me maintain my weight."

More information

You can read the entire ACOEM Labor Day Checklist online.

SOURCES: Robert McLellan, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, medicine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, N.H.; Jeanne Rogers, wellness and community relations manager, Big Lots, Columbus, Ohio; Mary Sevenoff, Big Lots advertising/print manager, Reynoldsburg, Ohio

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