Pro: Businesses should require healthy activity at work

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

June 29, 2014 at 1:29 a.m.

Putting an end to obesity most likely relies on a combination of solutions, but one place to start is the workplace, said John Peters, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry.

The nutrition researcher described a scenario in which employees set personal goals to incorporate healthy behaviors into their lives, and employers measure their ability to meet those goals in performance evaluations.

"Every workplace I know has behavioral rules," Peters said.

Employees agree to adhere to dress, harassment and secrecy codes, and they face potential termination when they do not.

"What makes these behaviors any different?" Peters asked.

Dane Mikulenka, exercise physiologist for Citizens HealthPlex, said there is nothing wrong with a little extra help. He supports the promotion of healthy lifestyles in the workplace.

Mikulenka said such job protocols show that companies care about their employees.

"It shows that employers care not just about work but also about their employees' health," he said. "Healthier, happier lives produce better work habits, too."

Philip Garza, director of DeTar Health Center, also supported Peters' ideas.

"Healthy foods and exercise help people become more positive, more energized and more focused," Garza said. "You're healthier, more productive, and you don't get sick."

For years, researchers have looked for something broken with human biology, but it was working perfectly, Peters said. It was just never designed for today's environment.

"A couple thousand years ago, we only dreamed about having a lifestyle where we didn't have to work so blooming hard," Peters said. "Now, we've got it, and we're saying maybe we went too far."

Energy-dense, high-calorie food is inexpensive and accessible, and technology has created an environment where people literally do not have to move to survive, he said.

The struggle is biological, but it is also cultural. Practices such as eating and resting to celebrate important events began because those activities were so rare at one time. It takes time to undo culture that celebrates behaviors that lead to obesity, Peters said.

The challenge is to find a force that is strong enough to overcome the reasons that cause people to sit still and eat too much, Peters said.

New policies and environmental interventions can help when people comply, Peters said. However, sidewalks and stairs cannot help improve physical fitness when people do not use them.

"You've got to want to do it for your own reasons, and only 20 to 30 percent of the people seem to be able to do that," Peters said.

Wellness programs are positive, but human resource departments that often coordinate the programs are not places people go for innovation and praise. The departments' main functions are hiring and firing.

The health care system offers incentives such as premium reductions for people who engage in encouraged behaviors and penalties for for those who practice discouraged behaviors, such as smoking.

Health care as a slice of daily life is a very small proportion, Peters said. The presence of incentives and penalties apparently does not motivate behavior change in most people.

"The further into the future the benefit is, the less we pay attention to it today," Peters said. "The marketplace plays to biology - get it now; pay for it later."

Linking desired behaviors to basic needs can drive motivation for behavior change more, Peters said.

Survival in the 21st century is about having employment, which provides the means for housing, food and safety. So motivation to stay employed could drive healthy behavior, he said.

"There's no reason why we can't expect people to behave healthfully at work," Peters said.

Employers cannot grade employees on their genes and other factors outside of their control, he said.

"It's not about your cholesterol level, which is a side effect of the behavior and your genes in some cases," Peters said.

Rather, Peters said employers should set expectations in the workplace, much like conduct codes. Everyone, from the CEO to the lowest level employee, can move more and eat healthier meals at work, he said.

Currently, self-improvement is something employees are expected to pursue on their own time. This is a new way of thinking, not a punishment, Peters said.

Obesity is a normal response to the environment that exists today.

"To overcome it, we're going to have to rely on cognition," Peters said. "We're going to have to think our way out of this problem individually and socially."

Con: Improved health should be workplace option, not requirement



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