Gaining weight at work? Job may be to blame

Study ties desk jobs, technology to obesity

Weight-loss programs have long been staples of work site wellness programs, but they take on additional importance if findings of an Australian research team are correct — that some jobs themselves might contribute to obesity.

The researchers at Queensland University in Australia, in findings published in the August issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine,1 found sedentary office work may be a contributing factor to obesity. They studied almost 1,600 male and female full-time office workers, 25% of whom are sedentary for more than six hours each day.

They determined that on-the-job sitting time was independently associated with overweight and obesity in men who were in full-time paid work, but say further research is needed to understand the association between sitting time and overweight and obesity in women.

The Queensland researchers say sitting for long periods of time may increase the risk of obesity by as much as 68%, and promoting physical activity at work is recommended to prevent lost productivity as a result of obesity and related diseases.

"One of the major immediate and long-term health issues in modern society is the problem of overweight and obesity," says W. Kerry Mummery, MD, one of the researchers and lead author of the study. "These results suggest that the workplace may play an important role in the growing problem of overweight and obesity."

Work-weight link under study

A prime suspect in the impact of work on Americans' weight is the technology that makes jobs easier and more productive. Computers, e-mail, conference calls, and fax machines make it possible for someone to work an entire day without leaving his or her chair. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and almost one-third are obese.

Business leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the human and economic burden that poor health imposes on their workers and their companies' competitiveness. Many employers have invested in health promotion and disease prevention programs aimed at reducing prevalence of obesity in their organizations and providing a supportive environment for employees who want to improve their health.

The University of Georgia Workplace Health Group (WHG) is taking a $4.5 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and will use it to design and test workplace interventions aimed at weight management and obesity prevention. Mark Wilson, one of the WHG researchers, says the project "emphasizes the use of environmental modifications and supports to help people manage their diet and weight."

The American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) released study findings in 2004 that support the idea that work is an ideal setting for programs that help employees control their weight. The AAOHN survey found that nearly half of survey respondents who participated in workplace weight management programs say they were successful in reaching and maintaining their goals.

Respondents to the AAOHN survey say the activities that they use most include on-site visits by health and wellness professionals (38%), gym memberships (23%), educational programs such as health series or seminars (16%), diets with outlined goals (14%), and on-site exercise classes (13%).

Based on the survey, AAOHN developed some guidelines to help companies create and implement successful workplace weight management programs, including:

• Management should actively promote the program and take an interest in success and outcomes.

• Getting employees involved at the very beginning is crucial to making the program successful; obtaining input from a diverse group of individuals (including fit employees as well as overweight and obese workers) is key to having a program that reflects the employee population.

• Promoting programs as often as possible helps ensure consistent participation.

• Enlisting a trained health and wellness professional, like an occupational and environmental health nurse or health consultant, brings credibility to the program and helps to ensure that all employees are participating in a healthy manner.

• Encouraging employees to participate in programs together fosters a team atmosphere.

• Sharing success stories motivates employees and shows management that the program works.

Reference

1. Mummery WK, Schofield GM, Steele R, et al. Occupational sitting time and overweight and obesity in Australian workers. Am J Prevent Med 2005; 29:91-97.

For more information, contact:

  • W. Kerry Mummery, Professor of Physical Activity and Health Promotion, Central Queensland University, Australia. E-mail: k.mummery@cqu.edu.au.
  • Mark Wilson, HSD, Associate Professor, Health Promotion, University of Georgia College of Education. Phone: (706) 542-4364. E-mail: mwilson@uga.edu.