About 17 percent of young employees in workplaces that encouraged several healthy lifestyle practices were obese, compared to about 24 percent in spaces that promoted one or no healthy practices, researchers found.
“I have personally experienced a range of workplace environments that I feel have influenced my eating habits and my physical activity, both positively and negatively,” said lead author Allison Watts, of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Those environmental factors include support for colleagues, lunchtime yoga classes and food availability, she said in an email to Reuters Health.
“I wanted to see if this was true of other young adults as well,” she added.
Researchers used data collected on 1,538 people who answered surveys while in middle or high school during 1998 and 1999. As young adults, the participants answered more questions 10 years later.
At the second survey, the average age of participants was 25 years. Most were white and nearly half were from high social and economic backgrounds.
Among the factors the participants reported to the researchers were their typical diets, weekly exercise routines, and specifics about their workplaces and their locations.
Less than half ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, 27 percent had at least one sugary drink and 20 percent ate fast food at least three times per week. More than half completed at least 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week and took active transportation, such as walking or cycling.
Soda and sweet snacks were available at most of the young adults’ jobs. About half said eating a healthy diet and being physical active was easy at work. Less than half reported working within a 30-minute walk from home, but about half worked within a 10-minute walk to fitness facilities. More than half worked within a 10-minute walk of a fast food restaurant.
Overall, about 19 percent of participants were obese, but those who reported working in spaces with three or more healthy factors were less likely to be obese than those working at jobs with fewer healthy factors.
“Working young adults are dealing with many stressors such as being pressed for time, juggling personal and work responsibilities, and stretching limited resources,” Watts said. “So, many young adults (will) reach for what is convenient and affordable.”
The appealing nature of convenience and thriftiness is why it’s so important for workplaces to take these factors into account, she said.
The study shows the importance of environment on healthy eating and activity, according to Carolyn Dunn, professor and head of the Department of Youth, Family and Community Services at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Discouraging employees from leaving unhealthy leftovers in the break room or only stocking sugar-free beverages could help employers promote a healthier lifestyles, noted Dunn, who was not involved with the new study.
“The environment is so important and so often policies drive that environment,” Dunn told Reuters Health.
Dunn, who has developed programs on nutrition and wellness, said workplace environments could help compensate for fast food establishments nearby.
“You certainly are not going to turn down a great job just because there’s a McDonald’s on the corner,” she said. But creating a healthy environment at work that’s supported by management may chip away at the unhealthy factors, she added.