Workplace weight programs produce modest losses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who take part in weight-loss programs set up by their employers manage to lose at least modest amounts of weight compared to co-workers who do not take part, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

A woman walks along the boardwalk in New York September 4, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

But their review of 11 studies published from 1995 to 2006 of such workplace programs in the United States, Britain, Japan, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia did not show whether those employees who lost weight managed to keep it off.

Obesity has been on the rise in the United States and many other countries in recent decades, alongside related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Some companies have sponsored programs of various kinds aimed at helping employees lose weight and stay fit.

Dr. Michael Benedict of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who led the new research, said relatively few studies have assessed how well these programs work.

Benedict said existing research also does not show whether sponsoring such a program saves a company money through greater worker productivity, lower absenteeism and reduced health care costs.

“The programs are helpful for at least short-term, modest weight loss in people who actually participate in them,” Benedict said in a telephone interview.

“Part of the problem is getting the people who need it the most to participate in them. A lot of times, health programs really just recruit people who already are doing the right thing,” added Benedict, whose findings were published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

The programs assessed in the 11 studies lasted from two to 18 months and typically involved education and counseling efforts promoting a more healthful diet and regular exercise.

In the studies that compared employees who took part in the programs to co-workers who did not, those in the programs lost weight averaging in a range from 2.2 pounds (1 kg) to 14 pounds (6.4 kg), the researchers said.

In comparison, co-workers with similar characteristics who did not take part in the programs had a weight change ranging on average from a loss of 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) to a gain of 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg), the researchers found. Programs that incorporated face-to-face contact more than once a month seemed to work better than the others, Benedict said.

Benedict added that because people with jobs spend about half their waking hours at work, workplace weight-loss programs could have a big effect on slowing the obesity epidemic.

But he said the research into the effectiveness of employer-sponsored programs has been spotty. For example, the studies do not indicate whether people who lose weight in these programs are able to keep it off in the long term.

“The overall body of work really is still fairly incomplete,” Benedict said.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh