UGA pilot study lays ground for helping Ga. workers manage weight and reduce diabetes

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Obesity in the Workplace

Here’s a story that I reported this semester that will become more significant as the UGA Workplace Health Group publishes results from their study in a couple of years …

Athens, Ga. – Once Juanita North started writing it all down, she began making changes in her portion sizes and paying attention to fat grams in foods.

North and colleagues in the University of Georgia’s parking services department participated in a pilot study by UGA’s Workplace Health Group aimed at health and weight management in the workplace. North, who manages the department’s front desk as an administrative assistant, joined nine other UGA employees each Thursday morning to set goals and talk about their struggles with eating and exercise. At the end of the six-month program, most of the group lost a few pounds. Now, as they work through the “maintenance” portion of the program, they’re trying to keep it off.

“You must be aware of everything. You may think you’re on track, but you’re not,” North said. “When you write down everything, it makes you think. Then you start realizing what you’re not doing to help yourself.”

The pilot group followed the Fuel Your Life program, a worksite adaptation of the national Diabetes Prevention Program created by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It encourages users to move through lessons in a manual and discuss habits with peers, such as boosting physical activity and developing healthier eating habits.

“I encouraged my co-workers to go to the meetings so we could all get ideas about healthy eating and exercise,” North said. “We all need to lose weight and say we will, but we never do. There were a lot of excuses, but by the end, everyone was on board and looking forward to each week.”

Now the researchers are taking what they learned at UGA on the road to help government workers in Athens, Columbus, and Macon with their caloric intake and physical activity.

Mark Wilson, director of the research group and head of the department of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health, received a grant in 2011 to test different versions of the Diabetes Prevention Program among municipal employees in Athens-Clarke County, Columbus and Macon. The $3 million, five-year grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, allows the group to run several trials of the 12-month weight management program in each city starting this month.

The intervention program tests three different formats designed to improve the health of the government employees. The first is a group-centered approach, similar to the one used with the parking services group, in which about 10 participants regularly meet to share progress and provide support. The second approach fosters engagement with a health coach via telephone. The third group receives the educational manual to set goals and work through alone while recording eating and physical activity habits.

“Worksites haven’t been attuned to this idea of a health program on site,” said Wilson, who has been researching worksite health for three decades. “But they have become interested in this in the past few years because employees have health issues that lead to huge costs.”

The average employee gains about three pounds each year, Wilson said. Losing weight is hard enough, and Wilson wants to help state government employees to maintain their weight from year to year.

Once Wilson’s team completes this study, the next step may be ramping up the intensity of the program in order to increase weight loss. In addition, Wilson is interested in studying how worksites can adapt the national Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, which advises older adults how to manage pain linked with diabetes, arthritis and heart disease, and is often used in community settings such as senior centers.

“Due to the recession, more individuals stayed in the workforce who would have retired,” Wilson said. “There are some who went back into the workforce as well, and employers are finding this new program attractive in helping them.”

Wilson teamed up with Don Walters, parking services manager and a fellow UGA Ramsey Center exerciser, to start the pilot study on campus. Walters encouraged his employees to take time on Thursday mornings to participate and keep each other accountable.

“The parking services group was so supportive of each other and positive,” said Tiffany Howard, a Workplace Health Group coach who directed the weekly meetings. “It’s easy to overlook how much time we spend at work doing our responsibilities and how much that impacts our health, and I think this group was able to build relationships and a support team to discuss that.”

As part of the program, North incorporated walking into her daily routine again. Some parking services employees decided to walk more during rounds on campus, and others took time to exercise at the Ramsey Center next door. Now that the group is entering the maintenance phase and trying to keep up the good habits, North hopes other campus workers can participate in a similar group meeting.

“It’s a valuable program, and it needs to continue to give other employees a chance,” North said. “On the whole, there’s not a program for employees to discuss and receive valuable information about eating and exercise, and this encourages employees to get out and do more.”