Workplace Environmental Changes May Help Prevent Obesity

Simple changes to the workplace environment, such as signs reminding workers to choose healthier foods and get more exercise, may help reduce obesity and other occupational health risks, reports a study in the February Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Positive health effects may be apparent within a year after these workplace environmental modifications, noted lead author Ron Z. Goetzel, Ph.D., of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

In the study, some facilities of a large chemical company underwent a series of environmental interventions designed to promote healthier lifestyles. For example, vending machines and cafeterias were stocked with healthy food choices, marked walking paths were established, and signs were strategically placed encouraging increased physical activity. Other sites did not receive the environmental modifications.

Small but Significant

One-year follow-up data on more than 3,000 employees found small but significant health improvements for workers at sites with environmental modifications. The changes included a decreased risk of obesity – mainly because the percentage of overweight workers was unchanged at sites with environmental modifications, compared to an increase of nearly two percent at comparison sites. The environmental modifications led to improvements in some other health risks as well, including a reduced rate of high blood pressure.

The researchers also tested a more intensive program that emphasized a more active role for company leadership. However, the intensive program was no more effective than the environmental modifications alone.

"Overall, our analysis revealed a modest effect on population health risks when environmental interventions are introduced at the worksite," Goetzel and colleagues concluded. Although small, the changes are significant, and may increase with continued follow-up. The researchers also plan further studies to see if environmental modifications have positive effects on employees' productivity and use of health care services.

American companies are looking for new ways of reducing overweight and obesity among employees. A previous study by Goetzel's group found that medical costs are about 20 percent higher for obese workers than for normal-weight workers.

This new research is part of a large-scale study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to determine whether such environmental changes can help in creating healthier work environments.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine is the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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