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USC occupational therapy experts caution against unhealthful habits

The average full-time worker spends approximately 25 percent of his or her time in the office, much of which is spent being sedentary, said Carlin Daley, an occupational therapist in USC’s division of Career and Protective Services. Stress, poor eating habits, lack of physical activity and the difficulty of balancing the demands of work and home life all contribute to unhealthy lifestyles, she said.

“Traditional office culture provides doughnuts for employees on Friday mornings, has candy available around the holidays and hosts pizza parties for lunch,” said Daley, who has also been involved with the Lifestyle Redesign Program at the USC Occupational Therapy Faculty Practice. “Awareness is steadily growing, but it remains a challenge to change the culture.”

Unhealthy habits at work can lead to increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension and even certain types of cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 65 percent of Americans are considered overweight or clinically obese. A recent report by the Milken Institute, an economic think tank, found that common chronic diseases linked to obesity are costing U.S. employers more than $1 trillion in lost productivity every year. In response to the rising healthcare costs, some employers are initiating programs to promote health in the workplace.

A key component in improving people’s habits is to help them understand that behavior changes happen in small increments, experts say.

“People need to set goals that are realistic, achievable and sustainable,” Daley notes. “If you’re used to eating four cookies a day, you should not expect yourself to stop eating cookies altogether.”

“All too often, people assume that it must be all or none,” Daley said. “Don’t set yourself up to fail.”

Organizing a lunchtime walking group can be a particularly successful way to promote wellness since it’s an inexpensive, non-intimidating form of physical activity that can yield huge benefits. Studies have indicated that walking 30 minutes a day can decrease heart disease risk by nearly half, and even a brief 10-minute walk is better than nothing, Daley notes.

Support from co-workers is also key to sustaining healthy habits, she said. Bringing in healthy snacks to share and encouraging colleagues to drink more water or take the stairs instead of the elevator can change the whole attitude of the workplace.

“A healthier workforce is more productive,” said Michael Cousineau, associate professor of community health and family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine. Plus, workplace programs “will reduce the need for going to the doctor. Since businesses pay medical insurance for their employees, it will help keep their premium costs low. Also, it will reduce the number of absences at work because of illness.”

While prevention and wellness programs are certainly gaining speed, the concept is not entirely new.

“In the 1980s, workplace wellness was a big thing, but it lost favor because businesses really didn’t embrace it,” Cousineau said. “It’s coming back now in part because of the increasing cost of healthcare and the obesity epidemic.”

Wellness programs have the potential to improve people’s overall health and curb healthcare costs, although further evaluation is needed to see which ones work and which don’t, Cousineau said.

Even if your workplace doesn’t offer any organized programs or incentives, Daley offers these simple tips you can do on your own:

� Pack your own lunch and fill it with healthier alternatives such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.

� Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

� Make sure to have a water bottle nearby and sip on it throughout the day.

� Take mini breaks at least once every 1-2 hours.

� Encourage your co-workers to be “well” with you.

“Employers are slowly beginning to understand that wellness is not merely the absence of illness; it’s an active state of promoting health.” But, Daley cautions, “we still have a long way to go.”

USC occupational therapy experts caution against unhealthful habits

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