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78% of Houston hospital workers overweight, study says, citing 'nurture effect''

Respondents said exercise, eating habits are lacking, but so are hospital/worksite wellness programs.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

While hospitals are supposed to be centers for recovery and wellness, the staff who help take care of patients may be falling behind in taking care of themselves. That's the conclusion of a new study from University of Texas Health that found that 78 percent of hospital employees in Houston are overweight or obese.

The nonprofit Shape Up Houston commissioned the study, performed by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, in which 924 employees from six hospitals across Houston, not including physicians, participated in a survey about their health status and diet in 2012. Most of the participants identified as either administrators or technicians, UT Health said.

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One issue that may be driving the trend is what researchers called the "nurture effect."

"People who take care of others on a regular basis are generally less likely to take care of themselves. The focus of hospitals is on patient care so sometimes the workers' own care can take a back seat," said Shreela Sharma, lead author and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

Another notable finding was the high level of dissatisfaction among respondents with hospital wellness initiatives; exactly 79 percent of respondents said they weren't happy with their worksite wellness programs. Dissatisfaction was highest among obese participants.

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However, a lot of the issues were tied to individual lifestyle choices. The intake of fruits and vegetables among normal weight, overweight and obese participants was generally low across all groups. Obese participants also ate more starches like french fries and consumed regular fat foods versus reduced or low-fat foods. They also consumed more sugary drinks and added butter and margarine more often.

Also, most participants in the study led a sedentary lifestyle. Results showed 65 percent reported no vigorous physical activity, and 48 percent reported no moderate physical activity.

In addition to that notable lack of exercise, overweight and obese participants spent more time on sedentary behaviors like watching television, playing computer games, and sitting during the week and on weekends, the study said.

"It is troubling because these are hospital employees active in the workforce and we need them to be healthy. Because obesity is linked to so many cardiometabolic risks, such as elevated glucose and lipids, this calls for immediate intervention to prevent chronic diseases," said Sharma.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn