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Trimming the Fat: Weight Loss in the Workplace

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ORLANDO, Fla. - With the help of her company and co-workers, Linda Euiler lost 43 pounds in 2003. She looks forward to adding to the subtraction in 2004.

A commercial assistant account manager with J. Rolfe Davis Insurance, Euiler spent the past year in an on-site workplace Weight Watchers class. She had done Weight Watchers before and liked the program, but having it in the workplace was even better, says Euiler, 53, of Winter Park, Fla.

"Here, everybody knows you. You've got minute-to-minute support. If you're hungry and looking at the vending machine, someone will say, `No, here. I've got some extra carrots.' We all try to help each other, and not just at the (lunchtime Weight Watchers) meetings."

The on-site employee weight-loss program was a first for the Maitland, Fla., insurance firm, founded in 1942. Twenty employees, including Euiler, joined the program and collectively lost more than 1,000 pounds.

It was such a success that the company now will reimburse employees who take Weight Watchers and lose 10 percent of their weight. The company also was planning to start a "Strides for Pride" walking program in January to induce employees to walk daily.

Such workplace programs are becoming more common.

"Companies are coming to realize they have to deal more actively with the problem of overweight and obese" employees, says Helen Darling, president of the Washington Business Group on Health.

The overweight "epidemic," which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported affects two-thirds of U.S. adults, isn't just a health issue. Darling's nonprofit group estimates that overweight and obese employees cost American companies $12.7 billion a year, including higher health-insurance costs and 39 million lost workdays.

But recognizing a problem is a lot easier than attacking it. "We don't think employers will be able to get people to do something they don't want to do," Darling said. Though most overweight people say they want to lose pounds, very few are willing to make the lifestyle changes necessary to keep the weight off for the long term.

Linda Bergthold, a senior consultant with the human-resources firm Watson Wyatt, says offering voluntary weight-reduction classes is a good start, but companies will have to do more if they want to have a real impact.

"Research shows financial incentives really increase participation," Bergthold said. One increasingly common financial incentive is giving employees discounts on their monthly health-insurance premiums if they actively participate in weight-loss, smoking-cessation and other health-related programs.

One reason such incentives are still the exception is that the jury remains out on whether companies actually save money by investing in health programs. There's no question incentives can get people into programs, Bergthold said, but that doesn't mean they will stay.

Although there are no statistics showing that shape-up activities in the workplace are effective, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. At the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Orlando, for example, employees can attend Weight Watchers sessions, use an empty office to work out to videotapes and get reimbursed for their YMCA memberships.

"Everybody seems to be health-conscious," said Stacey Barve, office manager of the law firm, which also holds health seminars for employees at least once a month.

The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., doesn't have to subsidize health-club memberships for its employees. It has a 24-hour fitness center free to employees, including one or two fitness classes a day.

"As companies look at the expenses for health insurance and absenteeism, there's a payoff for having a healthier employee base," said Keith Salwoski, spokesman for the resort, which opened a year and a half ago.

AAA headquarters in Heathrow, Fla., does not have an on-site fitness center, but it holds on-site aerobics classes twice a week. Employees pay for the sessions but are reimbursed half the cost upon completion.

"It builds up your stamina and tones your muscles," says Elise Hulme, a part-time product analyst who has been with AAA for six years. When the company started offering on-site aerobics classes 2 1/2 years ago, Hulme signed up. She loves the convenience and the $200 price tag. She pays $100 a year with AAA picking up the rest.

Aerobics "helps get your heart in shape," said Hulme, a 48-year-old grandmother who also enjoys playing softball and riding horses in her spare time. "I notice when I go up the steps, I don't get as out of breath as I was getting."

AAA gives employees a number of choices for shape-up programs in addition to aerobics classes. Its 50 percent reimbursement - with an annual cap of $200 - also applies to health-club memberships, Weight Watchers at Work and "any type of smoking-cessation program," said Sharon Arnold, the company's director of benefits and compensation.

"I can't back it up with facts and figures, but intuitively I know there's a good return on investment," Arnold said. "With the little we pay out versus the cost of health care, there has to be a benefit."

Although AAA has sponsored health events for decades, in the past three to five years it has become more aggressive in promoting health activities, Arnold said. She reports that 160 employees, about a fifth of the total, have taken advantage of the reimbursement program. Perhaps more significantly, nearly half of those employees reported starting a fitness program because of the company reimbursement, Arnold says.

What AAA's statistics don't say is whether the employees who use the reimbursements are the ones who most need them. Watson Wyatt's Bergthold points out that at most companies, 5 percent to 10 percent of employees are responsible for the lion's share of health claims.

One powerful tool for reaching these hard-to-reach employees is a health-risk assessment. Learning you have diabetes, a heart condition or another life-threatening physical problem can motivate you into action.

But even companies that pay for these assessments or offer inducements, such as a gift certificate, can run into resistance. Employees fear that their companies will use the information from the assessments against them.

Bergthold said such fears are unfounded. For one thing, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, prohibits employers from using health information for anything other than the health plan. For another, the assessments are almost always performed by an outside, independent party "that doesn't give the employer individual information on employees."

Instead, information from health-risk assessments are provided to employers in aggregate form, Bergthold said. "If only 10 percent of your employees are overweight, putting in an obesity-control program doesn't make a lot of sense."


(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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