Saddled with a growing number of at-risk employees who are overweight or obese, more companies are recognizing the importance of preventive health measures. Toward that end, many businesses are now offering their workers weight loss and fitness programs to keep health insurance costs down.

According to recent figures released by the U.S. government, obese and overweight workers account for $93 billion a year in spending on medical care, with private businesses picking up part of that tab. Some researchers estimate that these costs account for 9.1 percent of total U.S. medical spending, an increase from 5.7 percent in 1995.

The Society for Human Resource Management recently released its annual survey of several hundred employee benefit managers and found the following:

  • 31 percent of companies now subsidize or reimburse gym memberships—a 35 percent jump from 1999 to 2003!
  • 22 percent provide on-site fitness centers, up from 20 percent in 1999.
  • 11 percent provide some form of nutrition counseling, while 24 percent offer a weight loss program.

To assist employers, the Washington Business Group on Health, which represents large private and public employers, has created an Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity. The institute recently released the following recommendations for curtailing obesity-related health costs among workers:

  • Encourage the use of stairs instead of elevators in office buildings.
  • Create walking paths nearby.
  • Offer health risk assessments to workers.
  • Conduct nutrition and exercise programs on-site during lunch and after work.
  • Force food and beverage vendors to offer healthy choices in cafeterias and break rooms.