If your company’s wellness program dividends don’t include significant employee weight loss, you’re not alone. Companies with wellness programs are doing their employees – and their organizations in general – a huge favor, but wellness programs alone aren’t capable of helping reduce obesity.

Why? The short-term motivators and health advice typical of wellness programs provide general benefits across an employee population, but people needing sustained weight loss require concentrated behavior change assistance specific to their condition. Scientific observations show that comprehensive, evidence-based programs that focus on small, obesity-related changes over longer periods of time are the surest path to greater and more sustainable weight loss compared to generalized wellness activities. The best of these programs address the common cognitive, emotional and biological barriers to most peoples’ weight loss efforts.

Cognitive barriers

Prime examples of cognitivebarriers to weight loss include patterns of thinking, such as “all or nothing” thinking. Despite the best intentions, it’s all too easy for a person trying to reduce food consumption to rationalize, “Well, now that I’ve eaten that cookie, I might as well just go for it and start over tomorrow.” Professional coaching can help program participants identify these thoughts and develop more productive responses.

Emotional barriers

Emotionalbarriers to weight loss include depression, as well as stress and anxiety. Even mild depression leads to lower activity and increased appetite. However, it can be countered with physical activity, which improves mood and assists with weight loss. Those who are experiencing stress and anxiety naturally crave foods that are high in fat and sugar. That craving is a biological response; stress hormones flooding the brain produce the same effect as when our primitive ancestors needed to outrun predators – a desire for foods high in quick energy. Experts skilled in weight reduction can direct participants to alternative, satisfying foods consistent with weight loss.

Biological barriers

Biologicalbarriers to weight loss include the underlying reason why rapid weight loss is usually followed by rapid weight gain. Sudden loss of substantial weight signals to the brain that the body is starving, and triggers a sustained drive to gain that weight back quickly. That’s why it’s so important to have a weight loss program that helps obese people lose a reasonable amount of weight at a reasonable rate – it keeps from triggering the endocrine system’s flood of hormones that encourage excess food consumption and weight regain. Experts can help obese people achieve weight loss in a way that is optimally sustainable and coach them on successful weight loss maintenance strategies.

The importance of management buy-in

Having a behavior change program that addresses the cognitive, emotional and biological barriers to weight loss can be greatly bolstered by a fourth element: management buy-in. When management positions the program to obese employees as a valued positive, they’re more likely to stay focused and celebrate the small victories on their weight loss journey. Better yet: Lead by example. When executives and middle managers who are themselves overweight participate as peers with employees in a company-sponsored obesity program, substantial results can be achieved for everyone involved.

Dr. Kelly Carpenter is a research scientist with Alere Wellbeing and licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in health behavior change interventions. She has received more than 15 grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health and the CDC to develop programs that help people make health-improving lifestyle changes.

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