Workplace Weight Loss Programs Lead to Healthy Nurses, Employers

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By Melissa Hagstrom, contributor 

March 11, 2013 - The workplace is where it’s at--for nurse weight loss that is. As working professionals, even nurses can struggle with maintaining a healthy weight; most understand that dietary and behavioral changes could make them a healthy nurse, but may feel too stretched to do it on their own. Now, scientists and weight loss gurus are stepping forward with information that can help, while changing the way hospital wellness and weight loss programs are administered.

Recently, researchers with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University conducted a pilot study and found that incorporating workplace-based weight loss programs that include dietary advice coupled with behavioral counseling is a promising approach for men and women with significant weight loss goals. Employees enrolled in the intervention arm of a randomized controlled trial lost, on average, 18 pounds over a six-month period compared to a two pound weight gain in a control group.

Senior author of the study, Sai Krupa Das, PhD, a scientist in the energy metabolism laboratory at the USDA HNRCA at Tufts, explained that workplaces are wonderful settings for weight loss groups.

“Co-workers have established relationships, creating an automatic support system and level of comfort,” she said. “There is also the benefit of not having to set aside additional time for dieting. It can be built right into the workday.”

Participants in the study received a weekly lunch-hour intervention, which combined a dietary and behavioral approach. This included idealistic goal setting; recognizing triggers for when and why an individual eats, purchases and stocks foods; and how to change these behaviors, Das explained.

The convenience of building weight loss efforts right into the workday may be especially beneficial for nurses’ health, due to their busy schedules and increased patient care loads.

“Nurses have such stressful jobs and they are always in the business of giving, and so making time for themselves is the hard thing,” Das explained. “For health care employees and nurses, it’s even more important because when they are the recipients of such good programs and they see transformation within themselves, they also serve as the frontline spokespeople for the nation’s health. They are role models and with these types of programs they can be role models for the patients they care for.”

Hospital wellness challenge goes mobile  

Coach Alba, a self-improvement company that specializes in using technology to influence behavior, recently partnered with Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, Penn., to help employees toward their goal of losing 2,000 pounds by utilizing their adaptive SMS messaging platform; the program is designed to help participants resist temptation during the weight loss challenge and make lasting changes.

“As a health care organization, we are always looking for effective ways to help our employees take charge of their health and make meaningful and sustained behavioral transformations in their lives,” said Kathryn Brady, manager of health and wellness at Einstein Healthcare Network, in a written statement.  “We want our employees to be examples of excellent health, and we recognize how hard it can be to stick with a weight loss plan with the everyday distractions and demands of life. Coach Alba’s text messaging system is assisting our participants in sticking with their plans.”

“In our research we found that the best way to use technology to help people was to focus on helping them survive the moments of temptation throughout the day where we have limited willpower and are most vulnerable,” explained Coach Alba founder, Vincent Han. “We call these moments ‘crucial moments’… and the choices that we make can make or break our good intentions or whatever resolution or weight loss plan we are in.”

The Coach Alba systems sends participants a series of text messages throughout the day based on each participant’s “crucial moments”--which for some could be the temptation of an unhealthy treat in the break room, where others may find their willpower dwindling after a long 12-hour shift. The intuitive system uses a combination of personalized data, interactive responses and key strategies to gather information and send text messages before the user experiences a crucial moment.

“These messages help users commit before the crucial moment even happens,” Han said. “And then, when the crucial moment happens, Coach Alba sends a reminder text to remind you of the strategy you committed to. And then afterwards, you’ll get an accountability text to score you to see how you did.”

“This formula increases the mindfulness of each user to the point where they are much more cognizant of the crucial moments that may trip them up: they plan in advance for them, and they know they can have a reliable accountability partner in Coach Alba. That combination really helps people stick with the plan.”

“The fact is that we have created a culture and environment where it is just very difficult to lose weight, and it’s very easy to gain weight,” Han continued, adding, “In many cases willpower is not the leading cause for failure, it is really our environment. Increasingly, employers have a responsibility to acknowledge that the workplace is a contributor to either the health or lack of health of their employees.”

Regardless of the logistics and delivery of the program, the workplace continues to emerge as an important component of any weight loss program, and health care employers are taking notice that these programs can result in healthy nurses and other employees--and cost savings.

“A lot is being written about the healthier the employees are, the less of a burden the health care costs of the employees will be,” Han said. “If you have a segment of your employee base that is unhealthy it takes time and there really has to be a commitment to lifestyle change. When an employer commits to this lifestyle change, we will see a ton of benefits including a much more loyal, productive and innovative employee base, and all of these things will impact both the top and bottom line of any company’s performance. This is especially true with health care employees. I think happy and healthy health care professionals are much more effective in providing care for patients.”

“As employee health care costs continue to rise for employers, it is important for businesses to rigorously examine the wellness programs that they offer and with regards to weight management which is an important component of wellness,” Das concluded. “As employees, it is important to know that weight management is a dietary-plus-behavioral effort.”

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