Companies get passive-aggressive about obesity

Firms use subtle methods to push walking, stair use

October 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Like other Sprint employees, Kent Turner has adjusted to the company's new office park here on a former soybean field in a suburb of Kansas City, but he wonders why the elevators are so pokey when the buildings are new.

"We believe that it's a sinister plot to get us to take the stairs," he said.

Sinister, no; plot, yes.

Sprint planned its 200-acre world headquarters with an eye to fitness. It banned cars, forcing employees to park in garages on the far side of a road ringing the campus and walk between buildings as much as a half-mile apart. It put in slow hydraulic elevators and wide, windowed staircases to encourage people to walk rather than ride between floors.

Across the country, companies, states and schools are taking more aggressive - if perhaps passive-aggressive - measures to get an increasingly overweight society to move more and eat less.

The new methods go beyond putting gyms in office buildings or teaching children (or adults) the virtues of broccoli.

Union Pacific Railroad has begun offering some employees the latest prescription weight-loss drugs as part of a study to determine how best to get its workers to slim down. At the new headquarters for Capital One outside Richmond, Va., the architects set the food court at the end of a string of buildings, rather than at the center.

"It's a place one has to walk to," said Jim Carter, an architect with Hillier, the firm that also designed the Sprint campus. "We want people to get out of their desks and out of their offices and move around."

Programs that nudge people to move more or eat better are responding to a growing public health crisis: The federal Department of Health and Human Services puts the cost of overweight and obese Americans at $117 billion in 2000 and said that being overweight resulted in 300,000 deaths a year.

"There are times when we as a nation feel that personal responsibility is not getting the job done, and so we have to take action," said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "We could count on parents to get their children immunized, but they don't, therefore we require it. We could count on people being responsible and not smoking cigarettes, but we have a huge health crisis brought on by people smoking cigarettes."

Obesity surpassed smoking as a public health concern in a poll commissioned in May by the Harvard School of Public Health, with 79 percent saying it was a major issue.

At Union Pacific, 54 percent of the 48,000 employees are overweight. Looking at injury claims and illness records, the company estimated that reducing that percentage by 1 point would save $1.7 million; 5 points, $8.5 million.

But weight-loss campaigns have proved difficult. About 15 years ago, the company began a comprehensive wellness program. Cholesterol, smoking and blood pressure dropped. The percentage of overweight employees, however, has risen, from 40 percent in 1990.

Company officials' best guess is that the mostly male work force is simply getting older, their railroad jobs increasingly automated and sedentary. But Union Pacific set out to find a solution, starting five separate studies with employees motivated to lose weight, including one in which 234 employees receive some combination of diet drugs, counseling, weight-loss manuals and pedometers.

"We're more targeted to see what works and what doesn't," said Marcy Zauha, director of health and safety for the company.

Sprint and other companies say they have not put a dollar figure on getting employees to lose weight; they are reacting to research that shows that pedestrian-friendly places tend to promote healthier weights.

The new Sprint campus, designed to look something like a college, demanded culture change.

The neighborhood around it belongs to barbecue and cars; the driveway is off a six-lane road, a bank in a mall off that road has six drive-through windows. Kansas City consistently turns up on lists of the nation's fattest cities.

Officials eased the transition, welcoming employees with big red and white umbrellas to lessen fears about walking in the rain. They ran a trolley between the buildings and parking garages for those who preferred riding.

There are signs of change. A year ago, employees would wait for the trolley even if it would have taken less time to walk. In the last few months, however, demand for the trolley dropped so much that the company stopped running it.

"Just to walk to lunch and to my car, I'm walking more than I was," said Brenda Gudenkauf, 36, walking from her building on one end of the campus to a gift shop in the middle. "I was dreading moving here because I thought I'd be walking more. The garages looked like they were blocks away. I thought I'd be very unhappy. I'm very pleasantly surprised."

The stairs have proved especially popular.

"If you're not going to four or above, you just walk," Turner, a 44-year-old marketing manager, said of the elevators.

But even small changes come hard.

Over a lunch of meat and potatoes, Tim Eschleman described watching some colleagues drive rings around the parking garage, hoping that a space would open up closer to the exit.

"Even if they're not finding anything, you see them just circle and circle around," Eschleman said, "looking for that space that's just two feet closer."

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