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Obesity Study Examines Impact of Work Conditions on Weight

Doctors often advise overweight patients to diet and exercise. But what if a lack of exercise isn’t the problem? “Obesity/Overweight and the Role of Working Conditions,” a new report released Nov. 13 by the University of Massachusetts Lowell, MassCOSH and the Boston Workers Alliance, examines how we look at obesity health risks and sheds new light on obesity and low-wage workers.

It widely is recognized that overweight and obesity disproportionately affect lower income individuals. However, most studies examine office work and other sedentary jobs where weight reduction suggestions such as taking the stairs and walking to work might apply.  These researchers have found that housekeepers, janitors and other blue collar workers – who rarely sit during the day – have neither the time nor the energy to benefit from these traditional recommendations.

“I don’t have the desire to do exercise after standing for 15-16 hours,” said one research participant.  “I just want to eat and sleep. The next day is the same thing all over again.”

This study investigated whether lower-income workers perceived any factors in the workplace that have an effect on their weight status. Ninety-two low-wage Latino and Black or African American workers contributed to the study. Participants came from a variety of industries, including housekeeping/cleaning, restaurant/food service, construction, healthcare/human services and manufacturing.

They described a range of factors – time pressure, psychological stress and decreased ability to exercise after injury or illness (i.e., depression) – that influenced their diets. These findings are supported by additional in-depth interviews with lower-income workers, examination of national data and a review of existing scientific literature, creating a multifaceted picture of the role of working conditions in the development of overweight/obesity among lower-income workers.