News Release: Research, School of Public Health

Feb. 12,  2009

Workplace Environmental Changes May Help Prevent Obesity

News Article ImageView & listen to lecture by Dr. Goetzl at 2008 Predictive Health Symposium: "The Health and Economic Benefits of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention: Assessing the ROI" (35 min., RealPlayer required)

Making simple changes to the workplace environment—such as signs reminding workers to choose healthier foods and be more physically active—may help to reduce obesity and other health risks, according to a study in the February 2009 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Positive health effects are noted within a year after the environmental modifications, according to lead study author Ron Z. Goetzel, PhD, of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.

In the study, some facilities of a large chemical company underwent a series of environmental interventions designed to promote healthier lifestyles. For example, vending machines and cafeterias were stocked with healthy food choices, marked walking paths were established, and signs were strategically placed encouraging increased physical activity. Other sites did not receive the environmental modifications.

One-year follow-up data on more than 3,000 employees found small but significant health improvements for workers at sites with environmental modifications. The changes included a decreased risk of obesity—mainly because the percentage of overweight workers was unchanged at sites with environmental modifications, compared to an increase of nearly two percent at comparison sites.

The environmental modifications led to improvements in some other health risks as well, including a reduced rate of high blood pressure. The researchers also tested a more intensive program, emphasizing a more active role for company leadership. However, the intensive program was no more effective than the environmental modifications alone.

American companies are looking for new ways of reducing overweight and obesity among employees. A previous study by Goetzel's group found that medical costs are about 20 percent higher for obese workers than for normal-weight workers.

Simple, low-cost environmental modifications have been shown to have positive effects on health. The new research is part of a large-scale study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to determine whether such environmental changes can help in creating healthier work environments.

"Overall, our analysis revealed a modest effect on population health risks when environmental interventions are introduced at the worksite," Goetzel and colleagues conclude.

Although small, the changes are significant, and may increase with continued follow-up. The researchers also plan further studies to see if environmental modifications have positive effects on employees' productivity and use of health care services.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include schools of medicine, nursing, and public health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; the Emory Winship Cancer Institute; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.3 billion budget, 17,000 employees, 2,300 full-time and 1,900 affiliated faculty, 4,300 students and trainees, and a $4.9 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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