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University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center
Publish Date: 12/14/04
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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Obesity Researchers Want Your Workday to be Your Workout

Although the nation’s obesity epidemic is becoming a costly public health crisis, most Americans can’t make it to a gym for a regular workout.

But thanks to a study being conducted by scientists at the UC College of Nursing, the workout one day might come to us.

Donna Gates, EdD, a nurse researcher who specializes in community health issues, and Bonnie Brehm, PhD, a dietitian and researcher, are working with local industries and health department planners to determine how regular physical activity and healthy living can become part of everyone’s daily routine.

Funded by a $657,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the study represents a new tactic in our apparently losing battle to reduce our bottom line.

This study differs from earlier efforts to address obesity, Dr. Gates explains. Instead of focusing on individual lifestyles, she and Dr. Brehm will take a broader, “institutional” approach, which can potentially reach larger numbers of people at less cost than strategies targeting individuals.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66 percent of the nearly 15 million Americans employed in manufacturing in 2003 were overweight or obese.

So, since work-out classes, personal trainers and commercial weight-loss programs don’t cut it for many people, Drs. Gates and Brehm will work with an obesity-prone population—300 randomly selected employees in small Northern Kentucky factories—to improve their work environment.

The study will also examine whether incorporating physical activity and healthier eating habits into workaday life will reduce the expensive health risks of obesity, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, while cutting productivity costs incurred by absences and physical limitations.

Current concern about obesity isn’t just another wave of hype for weight-loss wonder drugs or a basement full of pricey abs-enhancing hardware.

According to the director of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, MD, obesity is bad news, big time.

“If you looked at any epidemic—whether it’s influenza or plague from the Middle Ages—they are not as serious as the epidemic of obesity in terms of the health impact on our country and our society,” she told a group of University of Georgia alums recently.

This new plague costs the country plenty.

A report by the disease-prevention advocacy group Trust for America’s Health now says nearly 119 million American adults, 65 percent of us, and one in seven children are either overweight or obese.

According to the report, obesity costs the country more than $117 billion a year. In 2003 Medicare and Medicaid covered more than half these costs, some 6 percent of the Department of Health and Human Services budget.

Should trends continue, the Trust for America’s Health warns, obesity will soon overtake tobacco as America’s leading health problem and killer.

The way Drs. Gates and Brehm see it, physical activity should be part of everyday life. Your job, your school and your community would be your gym. Simply going about your business would be incentive to use it.

Business architects could position parking lots a heart-pumping hike from the office, they suggest. City planners could design attractive, unobstructed city sidewalks, possibly with pedestrian overpasses instead of crossings, that encourage leaving the car at home. Even company stairwells could be made attractive enough to encourage walking upstairs rather than riding the elevator. And schools could include physical education in the curriculum from kindergarten through grade 12.

Stressing that, “We’re not presuming we know more than the employees,” the researchers will start with focus groups, motivational posters, healthy vending-machine snacks that are cheaper than the junk, better food at company meetings, clearly marked walking paths inside or outside the plants, and an educational Web site.

“Remember we’re dealing with small manufacturers,” says Dr. Gates. “Motivation is there, although many are operating on a shoe string. If we offer things like trainers and equipment, they won’t be able to sustain that after we leave.

“If what we do succeeds, there won’t be a huge cost to it. And we’ll work with the local health department to keep it going.”

We don’t have to move mountains to reduce obesity, these two researchers believe.

“If people would just start walking a bit,” Dr. Gates insists, “that alone would have an amazing effect.”

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