Monday, December 29, 2003

Employers join battle against obesity

By Chris Wadsworth
Gannett News Service

Joyce Reynolds has waged a seesaw battle with her weight her entire life.

"I've gone through bouts of depression," said Reynolds, 47.

"Even though you think you've reached a spot where you're happy, you're really not. It's like you fool yourself."

Her employer, the Lee County (Fla.) Electric Cooperative, is trying to help.

It recently started offering Weight Watchers classes in the office. Some of the 30-plus participants got a break on the usual enrollment fee.

Others are spreading out the payments through payroll deductions.

Five weeks into the program, Reynolds has lost 6 pounds and has seen her blood pressure drop from 160/100 to 130/80.

More and more, companies are searching for similar success. They're looking for ways to encourage better health among their employees - out of good will and because it's smart business.

Wellness Councils of America, a nonprofit organization that promotes workplace wellness programs, reports health care expenses are the single biggest portion of the U.S. economy - $1.4 trillion spent in 2002. Of that amount, companies and corporations picked up $444 billion of the tab.

The future doesn't look any better with health care costs expected to pass the $2 trillion mark by 2007, industry figures report.

That has left employers in a quandary. How do they persuade workers to get healthy, not only for themselves but for the company's bottom line?

"I think you're seeing American businesses at the crossroads," said David Hunnicutt, president of Welcoa, based in Omaha, Neb.

He says surveys show 88 percent of U.S. businesses now offer some sort of health or fitness promotion.

However, most are merely a poster hanging in a lunchroom or a brochure included with a paycheck. When you look at the number of workplaces that offer real, organized health and fitness programs on the job, it plummets to just 10 percent of U.S. companies.

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