Workplace gains counted in pounds

Health: As technology improves, employees are burning fewer calories on the job.

March 29, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

When Paul M. Ribisl needed his secretary to prepare exams at Wake Forest University 30 years ago, she had to type the questions, walk them to a mimeograph machine, then manually crank out copies. When he needed a letter typed, she would walk to his desk, take shorthand, return to her desk to type the letter, walk it back to him to proofread, then walk back to retype it if there were corrections.

Today, however, a copy machine collates, staples and bundles exams in minutes, and Ribisl can type letters and e-mail them to colleagues, saving his secretary all those steps.

"You can look at every part of someone's life and see that the physical drudgery has been taken out of it," said Ribisl, who is chairman of the health and exercise science department at the university in Winston-Salem, N.C. "People are stuck at their desks more."

Along with super-sized fries and the television remote control, the workplace has become a culprit in the great American weight gain. A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that poor diet and lack of exercise could soon surpass tobacco as the leading cause of premature death in the United States.

The economy has become dominated by sedentary office work. Technology allows -- even requires -- workers to remain in a chair all day, staring at a screen. Ever pressed for time, workers seem constantly to be scarfing down junk food on the run or grazing at their desks. Improved technology -- from conference calling to instant messaging to Internet cameras -- makes communication ever more possible without leaving one's seat.

The result: Gaining weight has become the latest occupational hazard.

Americans on average expend about 200 to 300 fewer calories a day than they did 25 years ago -- or about 7,000 fewer calories a month, Ribisl said. The change years ago from manual typewriters to computers, by one estimate, could have caused the average full-time secretary to gain 5 pounds to 10 pounds a year.

"There's a huge decrease in metabolism that you get when you're just sitting at your desk all the time," said Scott Collier, an adviser and instructor in Syracuse University's exercise science department who directs an exercise program for the university's staff.

Stress from work, many experts say, is also greater, fueled by such things as the push for greater productivity and the threat of outsourcing and downsizing. Stress lowers metabolism, making it tougher to burn calories. And cell phones and e-mail at home and on the road can make work seem omnipresent.

"Our work force has become more and more sedentary every single year as technology advances. I think at this point we're very chair-bound, between the phone and the computer," said Chris Corcoran, senior marketing manager for Weight Watchers International Inc.

A study last year of the Amish, a rural people whose culture forgoes the luxuries of modern technology, showed they are far skinnier than their fellow Americans as a result of the lifestyle. A study published by the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis concluded that only 4 percent of Amish were obese and 26 percent were overweight, compared with the general population, in which 31 percent registered as obese and 65 percent as overweight. Some of the Amish, who agreed to wear pedometers for the study, walked as many as 18,000 steps -- the equivalent of nine miles a day.

The work-weight connection is not merely about lack of physical activity. Many workers are spending more time at the office. A survey by the Web classified site Monster.com last week of more than 17,500 people concluded that 46 percent work about 40 hours to 50 hours per week and 25 percent said they work 50 hours or more.

"We certainly have more stressed lives, longer work hours for many of us and less opportunity for being physically active," said Lawrence J. Cheskin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore.

Poor eating habits at work compound the problem. About two-thirds of Americans eat lunch at their desks, while more than 60 percent of workers snack throughout the day, according to a survey last year by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods, the Omaha, Neb., food conglomerate.

Moreover, with a preponderance of both sexes working outside the home, people turn more to prepared foods from groceries or restaurants. Carryout foods in general contain more fat and sugar than home-cooked meals, and often come in large portions. The office is laden with opportunities for eating, from birthday cakes to going-away celebrations.

A desk can even become a psychological cue for food cravings -- like popcorn at the movies, said Thomas Wadden, director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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