Study: Revamp Workday To Combat Obesity Problem

May 30, 2011
Originally published on May 30, 2011 1:28 pm

A new study suggests that efforts to address the obesity epidemic should include dramatically changing the workday. Some are already dong so, using treadmill desks at work to burn calories. And in Portland, Ore., city officials are trying to get desk-bound workers up and about.

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We've all heard for years how the modern diet is making us obese. A new study suggests there's another big problem: the modern workplace. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Researcher Tim Church was lecturing on the demographics of obesity when he noticed high rates in both Mississippi and straight north, Wisconsin.

Mr. TIM CHURCH (Researcher, Pennington Biomedical Research Center): And I kind of lost my train of thought in the middle of the talk. I said why would Wisconsin and Mississippi have similar obesity rates?

LUDDEN: His first idea, both were big farming states. Church is with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana and eventually delved into decades of settling federal employment data. He found a link to not just the decline of agricultural jobs, but also the huge loss of manufacturing.

Mr. CHURCH: One out of two jobs in 1960 were associated with at least moderate intensity physical activity, now less than one out of five jobs. So where we used to make a living on our feet being very physically active, now most Americans make their living sitting down.

LUDDEN: Church translated changing employment trends into calories and estimates that the average man now burns 140 fewer calories per day, the average woman, 120. He says that closely matches American's average weight gain in recent decades. Of course, Church says, there are many factors behind the obesity epidemic, but he says his study suggests efforts to address it should include revamping the work day. That's something physician Elizabeth Joy at the University of Utah has already done.

Dr. ELIZABETH JOY (University of Utah): This morning I've already walked about two and a half miles since arriving at work and I suspect I'll walk about six miles today.

LUDDEN: Joy is walking as we speak from her treadmill desk. She stands at a table with two laptops, her phone and papers, and all day long she walks, 1.2 miles per hour.

Dr. JOY: I don't feel out of breath. I'm very comfortable. And I'm actually one of three people in my office who now have treadmill desks.

LUDDEN: Soon after the switch Joy dropped five pounds. But she mostly does it on principle to practice the active lifestyle she preaches. She says it's amazing how successfully we've engineered physical activity out of daily life.

Dr. JOY: We can walk through an airport on a moving sidewalk. We have clickers for almost every imaginable device. And certainly the workplace is no exception to that. You know, why get up and talk to a coworker, even in the office next door to you or down the hall when you can simply send that person an email.

LUDDEN: In Portland, Oregon city officials are trying to get deskbound workers up and about. They examined employees' most expensive medical claims for back and joint pain, hypertension, cardiovascular problems. Cathy Bless is Portland's benefits and wellness manager.

Ms. CATHY BLESS (Benefits and Wellness Manager, City of Portland): A lot of the diseased states that we're looking for really have obesity wrapped in and around it.

LUDDEN: So a year ago, the city launched a wide ranging wellness campaign complete with a slate of onsite activities.

Ms. BLESS: We provide a boot camp, we provide Zumba.

LUDDEN: That's an aerobics class to Latin rhythms. There's also...

Ms. BLESS: ...yoga and stretching.

LUDDEN: An online video even guides workers through stretches at their desks. A one year review did not show much change in worker's weight. Still, Bless says, Portland is hopeful for long-term impact and to sticking with its effort to put a little more activity into a day at the office.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.