by Alex Palmer | April 21, 2015

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health offers good news for the impact of workplace wellness programs. Drawing on two years of research led by an associate professor at the University of Rochester, the study found that healthy programs at the workplace managed to reduce the number of employees considered overweight or obese by almost 9 percent.

Collaborating with a Rochester, NY--based company with sites throughout the northeastern U.S., the researchers divided 10 of the company's sites into two groups, studying a total of 3,799 workers. Coordinating with the company leadership, the researchers instituted workplace programs promoting healthy eating and exercise in half the sites, and no programs in the other half. 

The wellness programs instituted included a revamp of the offerings at the office cafeteria based on the suggestions of dieticians (with fewer calories and smaller portions) as well as free meals awarded to workers who made healthy choices in their food choices. Workshops in which employees shared their healthy recipes as well as exercise programs such as walking clubs, upgraded gym facilities, and group activities like Frisbee golf, helped further these wellness efforts.

"Worksites are self-contained environments with established communication systems where interventions that modify food options and provide physical activity have the potential to reach large numbers of adults," said Diana Fernandez, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences and lead author of the study, in a statement. "This study shows in particular that when employees are empowered to help shape wellness programs, these programs appear to result in meaningful improvements in health."

For both the control and test groups, Fernandez and her team tracked the workers' body mass index at the beginning and end of the two-year program. In the end, the control sites increased the number of workers considered overweight or obese by 5 percent, while the test sites decreased those considered overweight or obese by 4 percent -- a net difference of 9 percent.

"This study suggests that worksite environmental interventions might be promising strategies for weight control," said Fernandez. "These observations lend support to the approaches that might eventually reduce the incidence and prevalence of overweight and obesity on a larger scale."

A 9 percent reduction in overweight or obese employees would be a substantial return on investment for the many companies that measure the value of wellness programs at least in part by reductions in health insurance costs. 

The full study, "Images of a Healthy Worksite: A Group-Randomized Trial for Worksite Weight Gain Prevention With Employee Participation in Intervention Design," is available behind a paywall