Scientists studying ways to help community college employees lose weight and keep it off
CHAPEL HILL – With more than 60 percent of U.S. adults overweight or obese and the resulting costs to employers rising each year, weight-loss programs adaptable to the workplace are needed, experts say. To be effective, such programs must be designed to maintain privacy, employee interest and commitment to long-term success.
But which are most effective? Which help employees maintain weight loss past the first six months? And what are the costs and health benefits of different types of weight-loss programs?
Since evidence is limited and few worksite weight-loss efforts have been rigorously tested, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have begun trying to generate useful answers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded them $1.2 million to evaluate the effects of three such programs on employees' weight, physical activity and diet. They will investigate what happens with employees at community colleges across the state who will participate in efforts relying on environmental change, Web-based weight loss and financial incentives.
The three-year study also will investigate how altering work environments might make them more conducive to good health and examine the effects such programs have on social and physical environments at all participating campuses.
Dr. Laura Linnan, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the UNC School of Public Health, is principal investigator of the "WAY to Health" study. Dr. Deborah Tate, assistant professor of nutrition and of health behavior and health education, and Dr. Shrikant I. Bangdiwala, professor of biostatistics, are co-investigators on the project, along with Dr. Eric Finkelstein, a Research Triangle Institute economist.
The N.C. WAY to Health study will take place in collaboration with the N.C. Community College System, Research Triangle Institute, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, N.C. Prevention Partners, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the State of North Carolina Teachers and State Employees Comprehensive Major Medical Plan. "WAY" is an acronym for "Worksite Activities for You."
"This is the first study to rigorously test three different worksite-based weight-loss programs," Linnan said. "Employers want to offer effective, evidence-based weight-loss programs for employees so this study will address an important gap in our knowledge about what works."
She and her colleagues also plan to investigate how work environments can be improved to support those who are trying to lose weight, the scientist said. Access to healthier foods, special promotions and labeling of health foods should support employees who are trying to shed excess pounds.
"In North Carolina, obesity accounts for more than $2 billion annually in increased medical spending," Linnan said. Nearly half of that total is financed through employer- provided health insurance."
No such studies have been undertaken to address health promotion among employees in community colleges, she said.
The team will enroll nearly 20 community colleges from the 42 that expressed interest in participating, the scientist said. About 1,300 employees will take part in the study.
"If we find effective weight-loss strategies, we will work with our partners to disseminate them to many more employers across the state," Linnan said.
Participants will be assigned randomly to one of three program conditions, she said. The first is an environment-only program called the Winners' Circle Dining Program, which attempts to increase access to healthy foods at work. The second adds a state-of-the-art Web-based weight-loss program to "Winners' Circle," and the third offers both, along with cash incentives for those who shed pounds and achieve a healthy weight.
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