June 24, 2018
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Obesity in the Workplace

We’ve long known that obesity brings increased health risks. A recent report shows that rising obesity rates have worrisome economic consequences as well.

Researchers at the University of New England’s Center for Health Policy Planning and Research looked at how obesity trends will affect 17 Maine employers — with a combined work force of 17,000 — including Eastern Maine Medical Center, Cianbro Corp. and Barber Foods. The picture was bleak.

The percentage of overweight and obese workers at the companies was projected to rise from 62 percent currently to 80 percent by 2018. Because diabetes, heart disease and other health problems are associated with obesity, employers will bear higher health care and insurance costs as the obesity rate rises.

This would increase annual costs due to health care and lost work time to $10.6 million, from the current $6.1 million. Overall, the cost of overweight and obese employees would be $75 million over the next decade for the 17 companies. This year, the companies were estimated to have 8,477 lost workdays related to obesity. That is projected to grow to 14,367 by 2018.

“This should scare the pants off employers,” said Robert Ross of the Maine-Harvard Prevention Research Center, also affiliated with UNE.

The trend is so troubling, Mr. Ross said at a conference last week, because the obesity rate among children has risen rapidly and overweight kids tend to become obese adults. The percentage of children characterized as obese has tripled in the last three decades. About a third of Maine kids are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a lack of health education, too little physical education and activity and the prevalence of television and video games as the main reasons for the obesity problem.

Encouraging more physical activity and less time with electronics is timely.

A 2007 study by researchers at Ohio State University and Indiana University found that young children gain more weight in the summer than during the school year. This is because for too many kids, summer means watching TV, playing video games and eating unhealthy snacks, one researcher said.

For most kids in Maine — and their parents — getting more exercise doesn’t require a lot of effort or cost. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Toss a ball around outside. Swim at the beach, lake or local pool.

Summer also is the perfect time to introduce kids to locally grown, healthful food. Farmers markets are teeming with berries, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce and other healthful fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs, cheese and seafood.

Reducing obesity rates will not be quick or easy, but tackling the problem now will save money and improve lives.

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