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Work-sponsored weight management programs offer losses for employees and gains for employers

Employers who offer their workers weight management programs may end up with thinner, happier employees who are out sick less frequently and use fewer prescription drugs, according to a new study.

Researchers studied 516 people who elected to participate in their Fortune 500 companies' weight management program for either 26 or 52 weeks. The employees, who had body mass indexes that ranged from 27 to 30 (overweight to obese), paid 20 to 30 percent of the program's cost, and their employers picked up the rest of the tab. Weight loss interventions included exercise, diet, counseling, and physician oversight.

On average, participants saw losses in body weight (5.4 percent), body mass index (5.2 percent), waist size (7.2 percent), and blood pressure (5.7 percent systolic, 6.4 percent diastolic). They went from exercising 58 minutes a week to 236 minutes a week. Tests for depression showed that employees' moods moved from moderate to mild depression symptoms. A subgroup contacted one year after completing the program maintained their losses.

Employers who hope to quell the epidemic of obesity and its resultant chronic health conditions may want to consider sponsoring weight loss programs for their employees. By examining claims data, the researchers found that the average number of prescriptions the employees filled was cut from 7 to 3.9 (44 percent) saving participants an estimated $2,382. This reduction in prescriptions could theoretically help contain medical care costs for the companies, the authors suggest. In addition, employee productivity prospered during the program's duration as sick days went from an average of 3.1 to 1.1 per person.

This study was funded in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS13853).

See "A lifestyle-based weight management program delivered to employees: Examination of health and economic outcomes," by M. Courtney Hughes, M.S., Ph.C., Teresa M. Girolami, M.D., Allen D. Cheadle, Ph.D., and others in the November 2007 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 49(11), pp. 1212-7.

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