Weighty matters Featured

11:28am EDT July 29, 2005
On the door leading to the main stairwell at a local company, there’s a colorful poster that reads, “Small Steps Can Make a Big Difference.” The small steps mentioned are those that employees take if they opt to use the stairs rather than the elevator to travel from floor to floor.

Because this company has offices on the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth floors, walking instead of riding is not always an easy alternative. But it’s an option an increasing number of employees are choosing. And the company is encouraging them every small step of the way.

Encouraging employees to be more active is one of the many ways employers are dealing with what some call an obesity epidemic. The number of Americans considered obese by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was reported as 44 million in 2001, a 74 percent increase in 10 years. And, according to the CDC, 300,000 Americans die each year of causes related to obesity and physical inactivity.

The cost of obesity to American businesses is also bad news. The American Journal of Health Promotion estimates the cost at $13 billion a year, broken down this way.

  • $8 billion in health insurance costs

  • $2.4 billion in paid sick leave

  • $1.8 billion in life insurance costs

  • $1 billion in disability insurance costs

Obesity costs businesses in terms of lost work days and restricted-activity days. A study in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that annual medical expenses for Dallas city employees increased from $114 for normal-weight individuals to $573 for the overweight to $620 for the obese. Eight percent of all private employer medical claims are due to employees who are overweight or obese.

Because most adults spend half their waking hours at work, finding ways to include physical activity during the work day is the most practical way for many adults to become active and combat obesity. Here are some tactics companies can try.

  • Offer a menu of voluntary, fun exercise programs loaded with incentives.

  • Make effective weight-loss programs, such as Weight Watchers, available on-site at a reduced rate.

  • Sponsor or subsidize fitness center membership.

  • Implement a healthy eating campaign, including offering healthy options in cafeterias and vending machines.

  • Encourage walking during lunch hours or breaks.

  • Work with group health vendors to develop programs that target overweight employees.

  • Talk with health plan providers about specially designed employee education material and disease management programs that target obesity.

  • Provide employee assistance programs for private counseling or community-based weight management programs.
  • Establish a health promotion committee to promote healthy lifestyles at work.
  • Bring in physicians, nutritionists and fitness experts to provide inspiration, information and motivation.
  • Changing health behaviors is hard work, and it takes time. Progress can be slow even for the most dedicated participants. That’s why an important part of making such a program work is to keep things light and to encourage supportive, healthy work environments.

    Plan events that are not just good exercise but fun. Encourage people to use the stairs by sprucing up the stairs with a fresh paint job, artwork or piped-in music. Encourage lunchtime walks by setting up friendly competitions with fun prizes for extra motivation.

    Effective at-work physical activity programs do require an investment on the employer’s part. But work site programs can help overweight employees find a pathway to successful weight loss and weight management, as well as create an environment that supports healthy behaviors for all employees.

    Debra Horn is vice president of clinical and network services for UPMC Health Plan. The Health Plan, with 440,000 members, is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s integrated medical delivery system and is the only provider-led health plan in Western Pennsylvania. Reach Horn at (412 )454-5210.