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December 2004 Issue

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Obesity Researchers Want Your Workday to Be Your Workout

Published December 2004

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, are working with local industries, health department officials and civic leaders to determine how regular exercise 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 more 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 workout classes, personal trainers and com-mercial weight-loss programs don't cut it, UC will work with an obesity-prone population--300 randomly selected workers in small Northern Kentucky factories--and try to improve an entire environment.

The study will also examine whether incorporating exercise and healthier eating habits into workaday life will reduce the expensive health risks of obesity, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as 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, that 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.

Drs. Gates and Brehm hope that one day Americans won't have to go it alone in Spandex. They envision an everyday environment in which the very act of going to work or school or just getting across town provides the exercise we need to stay healthy.

The way these researchers see it, exercise should be part of everyday life. Your job, your school and your community would be your gym. Simply going about your business would be your incentive to use it.

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.

The scope of this initial study will be modest--bringing about life- and cost-saving changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior.

"Remember we're dealing with small manufacturers," says Dr. Gates. "The motivation is there, but 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.

"But 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."

The ultimate obesity-free environment that Drs. Gates and Brehm envision probably won't extend to putting every fast-food restaurant up 10 flights of stairs or every ice cream parlor at the top of a down escalator.

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

Colorado is our "thinnest" state, Dr. Brehm points out, probably because its mountains and good weather encourage Coloradans to be more active outdoors than most Americans.

The state also sponsors annual bike rides and walking programs, she says. Every Colorado city has bike paths, and free maps and clear signage make them easy to use. And almost all transit systems have bicycle carriers on every bus.

"These are a few ways that changes in living and working environment can lead to positive lifestyle habits," says Dr. Brehm.

But we don't have to move mountains to reduce obesity in the rest of the country, these two researchers believe.

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

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