Gaining Weight on the Job?

Companies are weighing in to help busy professionals fight the battle of the bulge.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 08, 2003
6 min read

Monthly birthday cakes, free pizza breaks, long workdays, and regular client dinners are taking their toll on many Americans' waistlines. How many times have you heard a co-worker say, "Try some of these cookies I baked last night"? Sighing with guilt, you take a cookie from the plate. At some point, even the most disciplined eaters fall victim to the tempting office goodies, promising himself or herself that this is the last time.

Truth is, after awhile, many people do notice one more cookie or a "little" cake in the most inopportune places. We slowly start seeing our clothes shrink around us. For some busy professionals, the only exercise during their day is the walk to the restroom. And many employers are starting to pay attention to the domino effect.

"With a lot of professionals, their schedules fluctuate so rapidly. They could be in Paris today, L.A. tomorrow, and Chicago the next day. In that one given week they could've traveled two, maybe three times and still need to make sure they aren't sitting down at a restaurant consuming four times the caloric intake they should have," Jack Poll, recreation and employees services manger at SAS in Cary, N.C., tells WebMD.

Twelve-hour workdays lead to a dangerous combination of eating out every day with no time to exercise, says Nicole Hudson, a human resources executive in Memphis, Tenn. She gained 20 pounds in two years. "The possibility of going to the gym was a dream deferred because I got off from work at 9 p.m. and the gym closed at 10 p.m. Therefore, I gained weight. My company didn't have an on-site gym, and the healthy cafeteria alternatives -- such as our salad bar -- were a joke."

Employers are starting to take a serious interest in wellness matters as they see how overweight staffers are expanding their health-care costs into the billions.

SAS is one such company that is a pioneer in this area. Fortune magazine has listed the software company as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work for In America" for six consecutive years. In 1985, SAS created a recreation and employees services facility that most employees dream about. It has:

  • A 77,000 square-foot gym
  • Nutritionists
  • Personal trainers
  • Financial incentives to exercise
  • Seasonal holiday weight-management programs
  • Lunchtime weight-management seminars

The company also facilitates Weight Watchers at Work meetings -- all on site. Separately, there are several cafeterias with daily, healthy choice menus, nutritious snacks, and full-service salad bars. The company's objective: Eliminate the excuses many people use to skip exercise and forgo a healthy lifestyle, says Poll.

One common excuse many people use to skip a workout is, "I don't have enough time." But SAS took the hassle out of exercising away from work, and Poll says it works. "It's different if you just get up, fall out of bed in the morning, put on your workout clothes, get the stuff you're going to wear to work, take it with you, drive to work, work out, and you have to be in the office 10 minutes after you're done working out. You don't have that added stress of getting from place A to place B," says Poll, who helped create the facility.

Stress at the office often surfaces in the form of long work hours, skipped lunches, and tight deadlines leaving little personal time for you, the employee. Experts say stress is a major contributor to weight gain in the work force. It commonly causes many people to eat more and exercise less.

"Stress can lead to emotional eating, overconsumption of comfort foods, and less healthy quick choices. We educate employees about the importance of taking care of their bodies during stressful times, reminding them to continue exercising (or start exercising) and pay special attention to the food choices they make during these times," Cathy Greer, MPH, RD, a nutritionist at SAS, tells WebMD.

"I was put on a project that called for a lot of late hours. My routine got thrown off and I stopped working out," says Craig Robinson, a senior commercial real estate consultant in Atlanta. "I thought it would be a waste of money to continue paying for a gym when I didn't know when I would be in town." After putting on 10 unwanted pounds, Robinson decided it was time to get back in the gym and adopted the philosophy that doing something is better than nothing.

Some companies with wellness programs provide services such as on-site health, nutrition, and fitness consultations -- all at no cost to employees. But judging by recent studies, providing such services can pay off in the long run by lowering health-care costs for the company.

A study appearing in the July/August American Journal of Health Behavior shows that overweight employees cost companies more in terms of days missed at work and medical costs. The findings show that body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of weight in proportion to height -- predicted higher health-care costs and greater absenteeism among workers. The average medical costs for city employees got larger as the employees got bigger. In this analysis done on almost 500 municipal workers in the city of Dallas:

  • Normal-weight employees (BMI <25) cost $114 per year.
  • Overweight employees (BMI 25-30) cost $513 per year.
  • Obese employees (BMI >30) cost $620 per year.

That can add up to a huge tab for a company. Medical expenditures on American employees and dependents exceed $900 billion each year, according to the study.

"Age, gender, race, educational attainment, and smoking all failed to predict obesity-related health-care costs," says researcher Tim Bungum, PhD. "The lone significant predictor of health-care costs was BMI."

"Obviously, an employee who is here and productive and healthy at work is going to benefit the company more than the employee who's absent or feeling marginally good when they're at work or having other physical problems," says Poll.

With that in mind, other companies such as Xerox have also caught on. "There is value to both the employee and the corporation in providing convenient opportunities for health improvement. Xerox certainly believes that healthy, happy employees are productive employees resulting in lower medical care costs for employees and the company, " Sandi Alexander Tuttle, manager at Xerox Recreation Association, tells WebMD.

Xerox has an on-site exercise facility with yoga, aerobics classes, nutritional seminars, wellness newsletters, and a weight-loss group that meets once a week. The company also offers nutritious snacks in its vending machines and healthy menu items complete with nutritional value information in its cafeterias across the nation.

Other companies are incorporating healthy initiatives, too. After performing a health-risk appraisal among employees at Emory University in Atlanta, the school implemented numerous wellness initiatives. The Carter Center, a division of Emory, has a free gym, personal training workshops, a walking group, and tai chi at the office.

"Offering programs directly for [company] employees is helpful. The bottom line is to educate people and to help people learn how to implement this in their lives. It will save companies money in the long run if they do whatever they need to do to help wellness and disease prevention," says Greer.

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a gym at the job or a free nutritionist at his or her beck and call. But there are a few simple things busy professionals can do to burn a few extra calories on the run. Health educator and certified fitness trainer Kristl Buluran helps manage the Health Matters program at the University of California in Berkeley. She specializes in teaching "office workouts." She suggests:

  • Take stairs
  • Park your car farther away from the office
  • Stretch at your desk
  • Keep your desk stocked with low-fat, low-calorie snacks to prevent vending machine binges
  • Take the long route to the restroom
  • Walk over to co-workers instead of calling or emailing

Experts say that wellness is about more than weight management: It's about the total picture of treating mind, body, and soul. With heart disease being the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S., maybe more companies will soon mix in a Pilates session or two to help balance out that next afternoon pizza break.