$3 million NIH grant focuses on workplace obesity

June 03, 2005

The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) was one of only seven institutions nationwide selected to receive a $3 million grant to study ways to help prevent obesity by influencing people's dietary and activity habits at work.

Researchers say this is the first study of its kind in Rochester and in upstate New York, and any strategies or tools developed could be used as a model for future programs. Eastman Kodak Company, one of Rochester's leading employers with a local workforce of more than 16,000, has agreed to serve as the site for the four-year project, which begins immediately.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the program. The NHLBI sought applications and reviewed 55 projects from across the country before selecting URMC as one of the institutions to help find ways to tackle the obesity epidemic. In each of the seven grants, a research hospital or university is paired with local employers.

Nearly 65 percent of the U.S. adult population is overweight or obese. In Monroe County, an estimated 34 percent of adults are overweight and 22 percent are obese, according to a 2002 Monroe County Health Department survey. Because Kodak is a major employer in the Rochester area, the demographics of its workforce are similar to those of the local community.

"The worksite is a practical setting to test environmental approaches to stop the increasing prevalence of obesity," said Diana Fernandez, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., principal investigator for the project and an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine. " Employees spend many hours at work, where their behavior is influenced by well-established communication systems, cafeterias and opportunities for physical activity."

Fernandez's team will measure the diet and activity levels of Kodak employees who volunteer to participate. The URMC team expects to carry out the study by recommending simple actions the company can take in the work environment such as offering healthier food selections. Although one goal is to discover what lifestyle interventions work best to reduce obesity, the researchers will not promote any particular diet or physical training.

What makes this project unique among other workplace studies, Fernandez said, is that male and female employees across a variety of job functions will have the opportunity to volunteer to participate. Also, at the end of the project, the Medical Center will provide the company with scientifically tested, cost-effective tools to encourage healthy diets and active lifestyles at work. The outcome has the potential to benefit all of Kodak's employees in Rochester and throughout the world.

"Obesity is a major driver of illness, injury, medical treatment costs, disability and reduced productivity in any workforce," says Wayne M. Lednar, M.D., Ph.D., corporate medical director for Eastman Kodak Company. "This collaboration with the U of R Medical Center is an exciting opportunity. It will identify ways the workplace can support healthier life styles. Both Kodak and its employees will benefit from this work."
Co-principal investigator on the project is Carol Devine, Ph.D., of Cornell University, an expert in worksite nutrition. Other investigators include faculty from the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine: Nancy Chin, Ph.D., M.P.H.; Andrew Dick, Ph.D.; Ann Dozier, Ph.D., R.N.; Deborah Levy, M.D., Scott McIntosh, Ph.D.; and Hulin Wu, Ph.D.

University of Rochester Medical Center

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