Well Being

“You Can’t Outrun McDonald’s;” Weight Gain In Non-Sedentary, Blue-Collar Laborers Linked To Diet, Workplace

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Employees in labor-intensive jobs aren't immune to the weight gain that plagues receptionists, lawyers, bloggers and everyone else who sits at a desk or cubicle or coffee shop all day — suggesting the cause of obesity & weight gain in blue-collar workers has more to do with diet, environment and workplace demands than lack of physical activity.

Construction workers, hotel housekeepers, factory employees and others in nonsedentary blue-collar jobs still struggle with excess weight and obesity despite physically demanding work, according to a new qualitative study from the University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH).

“The folks in this report are clearly gaining weight despite getting the 10,000 steps recommended daily,” Eileen Seeholzer, director of the Obesity and Weight Management Program at MetroHealth Medical Center, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “You can't outrun McDonald's.”

The Plain Dealer says the objective of the study was to investigate whether lower-income employees thought workplace factors affected their weight. Participants — 87 normal weight, overweight and obese workers in housekeeping/cleaning; construction; health care/human services; janitorial work; and manufacturing — participated in focus groups to describe what influenced their diet, exercise habits and weight.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of MassCOSH, told the paper that workers may be on their feet, “but it isn't the healthy type of physical activity. It's the kind that takes a toll on your body.”

“The reason we became involved in this study is that we felt the voices of people in more labor-intensive jobs were not being heard when it came to health,” she says. “All we see is that ‘People are sedentary, they just need to take the stairs.' And I'd see people in the labor force and that wouldn't resonate with them.”

Participants mentioned several workplace impediments to healthy eating, such as:

  • Short or nonexistant lunch breaks (many report getting one 15-minute break per shift, the report says)
  • Lack of nearby places to get healthy food
  • Lack of workplace space & equipment for meals
  • Being pressured not to take lunch or snack/water breaks (“Working in factories, you have to eat fast or you get fired,” said one participant)

None of this contributes to an environment where healthy workplace meals felt possible (“they give me a 15-minute break; I don’t have time to eat healthy food, even if I bring homemade food,” said one worker). Instead, meal options include food from vending machines (“when we don’t have time to eat, we eat crackers or chocolate” and soda), fast food, convenience store food or workplace cafeterias that only serve chicken fingers, hot dogs and potato chips.

“The exhaustion and injuries, time pressure, stress and lack of access to healthy food – sometimes even access to a place to eat – were problems that most of the workers felt had a big impact on their weight,” said Suezanne Bruce, chairman of the Boston Workers’ Alliance Board of Directors and a co-author.

Other factors linking low-income, labor-intensive jobs with weight gain include:

  • Shift work that can wreak havoc on hormone balances
  • Lack of sleep or lack of regular sleep times due to a fluctuating work schedule
  • Work related illnesses and injuries that made exercising outside of the job difficult or not possible (sample quote: “I don’t have the desire to do exercise after standing for 15-16 hours…I just want to eat and sleep. The next day is the same thing all over again”)
  • Physical fatigue from work that led to eating more/unhealthier food