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August 2008 Issue

Jayme Johnson lifts weights while working out at UC’s University Fitness Center. Many employers have begun sponsoring weight loss and fitness programs at their workplaces to promote health and save money.
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Employer Weight Loss Programs Help Staff Drop Extra Pounds

By Katie Pence
Published August 2008

Trish Otto, 63, says she feels wonderful since she started working out.

It’s even better that she gets to do so on her company’s time and dime.

“I feel more productive and energized,” says the administrative assistant for the department of computer science and systems analysis at Miami University, who began participating in the university’s Employee Health and Well- Being program to help increase her bone mass about two years ago.

“I was diagnosed with osteopenia, which is a precursor to osteoporosis,” she says. “I was interested in doing what I could to slow the effects of the disease. To add to the benefits of the program, I’ve lost about 12 pounds since starting.”

Miami’s employee health program offers aerobic classes, a fitness room, a personal trainer, blood pressure screenings and other health-based incentives at no cost to help keep employees in tiptop shape.

Now, a review of studies from UC shows that this little shove from the workplace could be the ticket to dropping weight.

According to Michael Benedict, MD, and colleagues at UC, employer-based programs for weight loss are modestly effective at helping workers take off extra pounds.

“Worksite-based programs do tend to result in weight loss in the people that participate in them,” says Benedict, co-author of the study and researcher in the department of internal medicine.

The review appeared in the July-August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Benedict and colleagues looked at 11 studies published since 1994 to determine their results. Most of the programs involved education and counseling designed to improve diet and increase physical activity and lasted anywhere from two to 18 months.

Forty-six percent of the studies involved low-intensity interventions, 18 percent were moderate intensity and 36 percent were high intensity.

Benedict says that intensity may be an important factor when it comes to weight loss. Programs that incorporated face-to-face contact with subjects more than once a month appeared to be more effective than other programs.

In comparison, participants in higher intensity programs lost an average of 2.2 pounds to almost 14 pounds, while non-participants ranged from a loss of 1.5 pounds to a gain of 1.1 pounds.

“Most employed adults in the U.S. spend nearly half of their waking hours at their place of employment,” Benedict says. “Worksite-based programs have great potential to positively impact our current obesity epidemic.”

However, Benedict says it was difficult to draw conclusions about weight-loss maintenance.

“Participants in these programs may lose weight, but it is unclear what happens after the fact, as weight maintenance has not been studied,” he says.

There is also minimal data to show how much money employers could save if they start worksite weight-loss programs.

Benedict says many employers want to know that implementing these programs will lead to a positive return on investment. Studies have shown that other worksite health interventions targeting high-risk employees—for example, smoking cessation or hypertension—may benefit employers financially within only two to three years.

“These programs have the potential to have a tremendous public health impact,” he says. “However, more high-quality research is needed.”

Otto says her experience shows that such programs have the potential to help employees in the longhaul, not just temporarily.

“It causes employees to create a healthy lifestyle for themselves, thus saving the dollars that would otherwise be spent at the hospital and doctor’s office,” she says.

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