Miller School Expert Guidance on Making Workplaces More Fit Embraced by National Academy of Medicine
The National Academy of Medicine is aiming to tackle the obesity epidemic in the United States by bringing together experts from multiple institutions and disciplines. One of those thought leaders is Alberto J. Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., vice chair for research and associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Dr. Caban-Martinez specializes in how the workplace can tip the scale toward people being overweight or obese and what company leaders, employees and workplace designers can do to minimize the risks.
“My contribution is looking at it from the work environment and identifying unique opportunities to modify where and how people work, to help them to reduce sedentary time and engage in healthier behaviors,” he said.
The National Academy of Medicine Roundtable on Obesity published Dr. Caban-Martinez’s guidance along with the expertise of 14 other obesity specialists it convened at an April 2023 workshop. The 10-page ‘BMI and Beyond: Considering Context in Measuring Obesity and its Applications’ is available free-of-charge online.
“It’s a discussion of the importance of obesity in the United States,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. Overweight affects 31% of U.S. adults and obesity another 42%, “so together you’re looking at close to 75 percent of the population that is overweight and obese.”
In addition to workplace risks and solutions, the workshop experts examined the use of the body mass index (BMI) and alternative measures; strategies to improve communication about body composition, adiposity and health across diverse communities; how to reduce weight-related bias and stigma; and more.
Not all jobs are created equal in terms of obesity and overweight risk. For example, a lot of white collar jobs tend to encourage more time sitting and less time being physically active. Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the risks. At the same time, people working in blue collar jobs and service industries increased their activity levels during the pandemic.
“It’s useful to look at which occupational sub-groups have higher rates of obesity than the general population,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. Then Federal resources and specific worksite-based interventions can be directed to a group of people at higher risk.
Overweight and obesity are also issues among first responders, at least firefighters in Florida, and military personnel. Dr. Caban-Martinez and Ph.D. student Hannah Kling, M.P.H., just published a study in the August 2023 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine looking at obesity in the fire service. “And it is high,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said.
“Folks normally perceive First Responders as physically fit and cardiopulmonary fit for duty,” he said. “And the data is actually showing that we see significant levels of overweight and obesity, which can impact workforce readiness.”
People in the military are not exempt either. Incoming recruits are having a hard time meeting standards for entering the military, Dr. Caban-Martinez said, so they undergo prolonged training to get fit for duty. The scenario stems in part from the preponderance of overweight and obesity in American children. “By the time they get to an adult and are eligible to apply to the army, they’re already overweight and obese.”
The CDC points out that obesity impairs military readiness in their ‘Unfit for Duty ’ report. The agency found that 19% of active-duty service members had obesity in 2020, up from 16% in 2015, for example.
Can We Walk and Talk?
In terms of effective interventions, for example, Dr. Caban-Martinez, Hannah Kling, M.P.H., and colleagues assessed ‘walking meetings’ as an alternative to traditional, sit-down gatherings. Typically reserved for meetings of 5 people or fewer, their 2015 pilot study showed the tactic increased work-related physical activity levels.
After that feasibility study was published in the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease, companies like LinkedIn, Citi and Target contacted the researchers, wanting to know more about the strategy. The group published a second study as well, finding that walking meetings improved productivity and mood.
Another recommendation is to follow the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) Total Worker Health Program. “We want to think about risk factors at the employer level, at the work environment level and then at the worker level,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. “Companies should think using a total worker health approach to support their workforce in physical activity and weight-loss approaches.”
Miller School Support
Dr. Caban-Martinez credits the colleagues, culture and environment at the Miller School for supporting his research.
“Working at the University of Miami gives me the space and the resources to explore my science. Some institutions say, ‘This is what you need to work on, this is what we need.’ Here they encourage transdisciplinary work which is really awesome.”
Dr. Caban-Martinez also credits David J. Lee, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School, for his mentorship and support over the years.
“He always encourages me to pursue my curiosity, and one of my first papers with him was on obesity in the U.S. workforce,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. “It’s a privilege to be able to develop that program of research here and contribute to the medical school’s work impacting human health.”