Sedentary hours behind a desk contribute, but more research is needed to determine differences with others
July 30, 2009 -- The obesity epidemic has struck state employees whose waistlines are increasing more than most. Not only are they getting heavier, but state employees are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or arthritis – excercise less – and smoke more than their university employee counterparts.
A report released
by the Department of Human Resources in May found that the percentage of obese state workers rose from 28 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2007. University system employees had the lowest obesity rate -- 18 percent in 2007. These results were based on a 2007 survey of 1,653 state employees and 500 university employees.
No one contacted for this story could give a definitive answer as to why the obesity rate among Oregon’s 47,000 state workers spiked over such a relatively short period.
“We do not know,” said Jane Moore, manager of the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Section for the Department of Human Services. “Surveys like this aren’t really able to tell us why something might change necessarily. It’s really a random selection of employees. It’s two points of data, and they’re different.”
The sedentary nature of many state jobs — long hours spent sitting at a desk, working on computers, processing paperwork — may be a contributing factor to the rise in obesity, said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state epidemiologist.
“I think it comes back to the environment they work in,” said Kari McFarlan, deputy director of the Community Health Partnership. Physical activity could be promoted by offering bus passes, giving cash-back incentives for biking, installing bike racks, offering locker rooms and having accessible stairways, she suggested.
Sampling issues might account for the jump in obesity, said Joan Kapowich, PEBB administrator. “There could be a potential to oversample more obese people than exist in the population overall.”
More definitive results will be shown when the next survey is conducted, between 2009 and 2010, said Cathryn Cushing, communications manager for the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Section. It may help determine whether the rise is a trend “or a one-time blip in the data for whatever reason.”
Actions and outcomes
Alarmed by these thickening waistlines, an obesity task force created by the 2007 legislature recommended the state spend $10 million on a comprehensive prevention and education program, but it failed to gain traction last legislative session. The task force’s work did result in wellness committees at 50 worksites that promote walking, stair climbing and healthier eating.
The current funding squeeze makes it difficult for state officials to mount a large-scale effort to fight obesity. “In public health we are definitely aware that obesity is a very big concern, but there are no resources to address the epidemic,” Moore said, “so we are doing what we can to collect data and analyze it and provide very limited kinds of technical assistance. But without resources it’s going to be hard to make much of a difference.”
Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who served on that task force, would like to see healthier food choices – at lower prices – offered in cafeterias in public buildings.
There are also fun ways to increase physical activity, she said. Lawmakers received pedometers last session, and had a contest to see who could walk the most in the course of a week. A similar contest could be offered to state employees. However, “trying to change decades of behavior is very challenging,” Kotek said, “when the environment is not conducive to change.”
Concern over obese employees led PEBB to add a benefit last January allowing people to attend Weight Watchers meetings at their worksite. To date, the 2,782 people enrolled have lost more than 38,000 pounds.
Meanwhile, as Congress debates healthcare reform, McFarlan hopes it pays attention to population-based public health by funding a Wellness Trust Fund. “In Oregon, the majority of public health programs are funded by federal money,” she said. “Any increase in federal money will increase the public health infrastructure and allow more programs across the state.”
Other survey results
The level of education and household income are defining factors when analyzing obesity trends, according to Moore. For example, there’s a much higher prevalence of college graduates working for the university system compared to state agencies – 83 percent vs. 57 percent – which could account for their lower obesity rates. Higher income households ($50,000 or more annually) also tend to have lower obesity rates (65 percent for university employees compared to 58 percent for state employees), but those numbers cannot be considered statistically significant, Moore said.
Also, 61 percent of university employees said their worksite allowed them to use flextime for physical activity vs. 45 percent of state employees. That variation could be attributable to the availability of gyms, bike paths and walking trails on Oregon’s college campuses. If their worksite allowed flextime for physical activity, a whopping 87 percent of state employees said they’d take advantage of the policy.
Among the survey’s other findings: 54 percent of university employees said their worksite offers healthy foods from a cafeteria or vending machine, compared to 21 percent of state employees who’d prefer to choose healthier foods (79 percent) if they were available.
As far as smoking behavior is concerned, 11 percent of state employees smoked, 30 percent were former smokers, while only 5 percent of university employees used tobacco and 21 percent were former smokers in 2007.
For the complete report on the health survey issued to state employees click here.
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