Gaining Weight on the Job?

Companies are weighing in to help busy professionals fight the battle of the bulge

By Cherie Berkley, MS
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Monthly birthday cakes, free pizza breaks, long workdays, and regular client dinners are taking their toll on many Americans' waistlines. How many times have you heard a co-worker say, "Try some of these cookies I baked last night"? Sighing with guilt, you take a cookie from the plate. At some point, even the most disciplined eaters fall victim to the tempting office goodies, promising himself or herself that this is the last time.

Truth is, after awhile, many people do notice one more cookie or a "little" cake in the most inopportune places. We slowly start seeing our clothes shrink around us. For some busy professionals, the only exercise during their day is the walk to the restroom. And many employers are starting to pay attention to the domino effect.

"With a lot of professionals, their schedules fluctuate so rapidly. They could be in Paris today, L.A. tomorrow, and Chicago the next day. In that one given week they could've traveled two, maybe three times and still need to make sure they aren't sitting down at a restaurant consuming four times the caloric intake they should have," Jack Poll, recreation and employees services manger at SAS in Cary, N.C., tells WebMD.

Weight Gain Waiting to Happen

Twelve-hour workdays lead to a dangerous combination of eating out every day with no time to exercise, says Nicole Hudson, a human resources executive in Memphis, Tenn. She gained 20 pounds in two years. "The possibility of going to the gym was a dream deferred because I got off from work at 9 p.m. and the gym closed at 10 p.m. Therefore, I gained weight. My company didn't have an on-site gym, and the healthy cafeteria alternatives -- such as our salad bar -- were a joke."

Employers are starting to take a serious interest in wellness matters as they see how overweight staffers are expanding their health-care costs into the billions.

SAS is one such company that is a pioneer in this area. Fortune magazine has listed the software company as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work for In America" for six consecutive years. In 1985, SAS created a recreation and employees services facility that most employees dream about. It has:

  • A 77,000 square-foot gym
  • Nutritionists
  • Personal trainers
  • Financial incentives to exercise
  • Seasonal holiday weight-management programs
  • Lunchtime weight-management seminars

The company also facilitates Weight Watchers at Work meetings -- all on site. Separately, there are several cafeterias with daily, healthy choice menus, nutritious snacks, and full-service salad bars. The company's objective: Eliminate the excuses many people use to skip exercise and forgo a healthy lifestyle, says Poll.

One common excuse many people use to skip a workout is, "I don't have enough time." But SAS took the hassle out of exercising away from work, and Poll says it works. "It's different if you just get up, fall out of bed in the morning, put on your workout clothes, get the stuff you're going to wear to work, take it with you, drive to work, work out, and you have to be in the office 10 minutes after you're done working out. You don't have that added stress of getting from place A to place B," says Poll, who helped create the facility.

"Stress can lead to emotional eating,overconsumption of comfort foods,and less healthy quick choices."

Stress at the office often surfaces in the form of long work hours, skipped lunches, and tight deadlines leaving little personal time for you, the employee. Experts say stress is a major contributor to weight gain in the work force. It commonly causes many people to eat more and exercise less.

"Stress can lead to emotional eating,overconsumption of comfort foods,and less healthy quick choices. We educateemployees about the importance of taking care of their bodies during stressfultimes, reminding them to continue exercising (or start exercising) and pay special attention to the food choices they make during these times," Cathy Greer, MPH, RD, a nutritionist at SAS, tells WebMD.

"I was put on a project that called for a lot of late hours. My routine got thrown off and I stopped working out," says Craig Robinson, a senior commercial real estate consultant in Atlanta. "I thought it would be a waste of money to continue paying for a gym when I didn't know when I would be in town." After putting on 10 unwanted pounds, Robinson decided it was time to get back in the gym and adopted the philosophy that doing something is better than nothing.

Bigger Employees, Bigger Costs

Some companies with wellness programs provide services such as on-site health, nutrition, and fitness consultations -- all at no cost to employees. But judging by recent studies, providing such services can pay off in the long run by lowering health-care costs for the company.