UNC researchers to test worksite weight loss programs

March 21, 2007
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are recruiting more than 1,200 overweight employees at several North Carolina colleges and universities for a study of workplace weight-loss programs.

The project will test four worksite-based weight-loss programs. Researchers hope to uncover cost-effective ways for employers to help employees lose weight and keep it off.

“The overarching goal is to identify effective and cost-effective weight loss programs that can be easily implemented by employers and help employees keep the weight off,” said Laura Linnan, Sc.D., the study’s principal investigator and associate professor of health behavior and health education in the UNC School of Public Health.

The five-year “WAY to Health” project (WAY is an acronym for Worksite Activities for You) is based at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and funded by a $3.4 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The WAY to Health weight-loss programs at each of 14 participating colleges or universities will last 18 months. Weight loss is a primary focus, but will also monitor changes in the campus environment to support employee health.

“More than 60 percent of U.S. adults over age 18 spend a great deal of their waking hours at work,” Linnan said. “Workplace weight-loss programs that are cost-effective have the potential to improve the health of large numbers of people, which is crucial, given that more than 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.”

Worksite wellness committees will be organized or partnered with at each college or university. “Our research team will provide technical assistance to the committees over the study period to help them plan, identify, implement and evaluate health promotion programs that are tailored to the needs and interests of employees at each institution” said Carolyn Naseer, WAY to Health project manager.

In addition to the wellness committees, 100 overweight employees from each campus will be enrolled in the weight loss portion of the study. All enrolled employees will be randomized to receive one of four programs.

One group will receive a Web-based weight-loss program that has proven effective in producing weight loss. The program offers dietary and physical activity resources and recommendations; behavioral strategies; problem-solving skills; weekly lesson plans; worksheets, recipes and other printable documents; links to information libraries; and message boards where participants can talk to others in the program.

Photograph of Dr. Deborah Tate

Photograph of Dr. Deborah Tate

“The Web-based program is based on years of research in helping people acquire the skills and maintain the motivation necessary for weight loss. We know people hear the messages ‘eat less and exercise more’ but figuring out how to do that for a lifetime is very difficult,” said Deborah Tate, Ph.D., who developed the program and is a co-investigator for the study. Tate is assistant professor of nutrition and of health behavior and health education in the UNC School of Public Health.

The second group will receive cash payments for losing weight. Weight will be measured at three, six, 12 and 18 months, and participants will earn cash based on the percentage of weight loss achieved. All employees will be monitored for healthy weight loss over the course of the study.

The third group will receive both the Web-based weight-loss program and cash payments for losing weight.

The fourth group will be given information about community-based programs and resources for weight loss, including any programs offered by the worksite wellness committees at their college or university. This group will not receive the Web-based program or cash incentives. These employees will receive access to the online Web-based weight loss program when the study ends.

The researchers are working with a statewide steering committee that includes a group of experts from the UNC School of Public Health, the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, the N.C. Community College System, the University of North Carolina System, RTI International, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, N.C. Prevention Partners, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the State of North Carolina Teachers and State Employees Comprehensive Major Medical Plan.

Photograph of Dr. Kelly Evenson

Photograph of Dr. Kelly Evenson
Photograph of Dr. Shrikant Bangdiwala

Photograph of Dr. Shrikant Bangdiwala

Co-investigators include Shrikant Bangdiwala, Ph.D., research professor of biostatistics, and Kelly Evenson, Ph.D., research associate professor of epidemiology, both in the UNC School of Public Health; Dr. Thomas Keyserling, associate professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine; and Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., an RTI International economist.

For information about participating in the WAY to Health study, contact Carolyn Naseer at (919) 966-3927.


School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.

News Services contact: Becky Oskin, (919) 962-8596 or becky_oskin@unc.edu.