New Research on Obesity Epidemic Points to Workplace

office job bad for healthA new study from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, points to another cause of the obesity epidemic in the United States: a decrease in physical activity in the workplace. According to an article about the study published today in the New York Times, jobs requiring moderate physical activity, which accounted for 50 percent of the labor market in 1960, have plummeted to just 20 percent. This indicates that 80 percent of jobs today are sedentary or require only light activity.

To calculate the shift in activity levels, the researchers used computer models to assign metabolic equivalent values to various jobs and then calculated changes in caloric expenditure at work from 1960 to 2008. This study is believed to be the first in which anyone has estimated how much daily caloric expenditure has been lost in the workplace, although it has long been known that Americans are more sedentary at work compared with the farming and manufacturing workers of 50 years ago.

We asked Dr. Daniel Davis, Chief of Bariatric Surgery at the Center for Surgical Weight Loss at Stamford Hospital, to comment on the study. He explained “The study out of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center is the first to demonstrate how much the daily caloric expenditure has been lost in the workplace over the years due to a decrease in jobs requiring moderate physical activity. Now more than 80 percent of jobs are sedentary or require light physical activity. This is hardly a surprise. Combine the fact that most American workers are employed in a sedentary work environment with the recent study out of the University of Illinois demonstrating the rise in automobile use and obesity, the net result is a significant decrease in physical activity creating an energy imbalance and increasing obesity rates.”

Dr. Davis continued that “Not only are Americans spending more time in their cars traveling to sedentary jobs, but there tends to be an abundance of high carbohydrate snacks and high calorie coffee drinks at the workplace. In addition, most workplaces are within an arm’s length of fast-food restaurants.”

When asked about how employers can encourage physical activity, Dr. Davis points out that the decrease in physical activity at the workplace cannot be fully restored, but he says that the study will hopefully encourage employers to create a healthy work environment. “Employers can create incentives for employees to increase their physical activities by subsidizing gym membership, or use mass transit, and encourage walks during breaks. The employer can also offer high quality nutritional alternatives to the usual abundant high carbohydrate snacks available at most cafeterias,” says Davis.

Davis presented a startling figure of the cost of obesity in the workplace. He referenced a recent study from Duke University that demonstrated $73 billion per year in costs attributable to obesity among full time employees. “The majority of the costs were incurred due to medical expenses and lack of productivity or presenteeism. The employer can have a profound impact in supporting effective treatments and preventing obesity which could result in significant savings to the employer,” Dr. Davis concluded.

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