Workplace obesity intervention programs can reach millions of people

Each year, millions of Americans struggle with obesity – a potentially deadly condition that puts them at a higher risk for numerous health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently estimated that 129 million Americans are overweight or obese; economic costs to the Nation range from $69 billion to $117 billion per year.

In addition to producing adverse or even fatal health outcomes, obesity can result in increased health care costs and reduced workplace productivity. Because obesity is a major, rising health concern, and workplace intervention programs can reach millions of people, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) has chosen obesity control as the focus of its Labor Day CheckList, an annual list of “quick tips” developed to assist both employers and employees in improving the health and safety of workers, the workplace, and the environment.

“ACOEM recognizes that the public health problem of obesity is one which goes beyond an individual’s lifestyle choices, and is the result of a complex chain of events that includes socio-environmental factors,” said Robert McLellan, MD, of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. “Employers have the opportunity to provide a supportive environment that enables healthy lifestyle choices.”

The 2004 Labor Day CheckList recommends ways to curtail obesity and summarizes several steps both employers and employees can take to reduce the potential for developing obesity-related health problems and to enhance workplace productivity and personal lifestyle. “Implementing a workplace wellness program that provides mechanisms to aid employees in adopting a healthy lifestyle will impact workplace health and productivity and ultimately improve the bottom line,” states Wayne Burton, MD, Corporate Medical Director for Bank One in Chicago, Ill. “Focused workplace intervention strategies that promote physical activity and good nutrition can help employees prevent and/or control obesity.”

While not every employer can afford to offer its employees memberships at the gym, the CheckList also suggests ways small employers can put into practice both practical and affordable efforts to reduce obesity such as distributing free materials on nutrition and weight management and encouraging physical activity during lunch or breaks.

Often, the simplest changes can help. “The intake of water is often not adequately emphasized when trying to make lifestyle changes and worksites that don’t offer bottled water in their vending areas are discouraging water as a beverage,” states Carl Otten, MD, of Adena Health System, Chillicothe, Ohio. “Encouraging adults to drink water to maintain adequate hydration, in place of other high caloric, high sugar beverage choices, should be emphasized both in the workplace and at home.”

The 2004 CheckList, Controlling Obesity in the Workplace, is posted on the ACOEM web site at http://www.acoem.org/pdfs/2004LaborDayChecklist.pdf.

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