Watching your figure? So’s the boss.

Think your weight is nobody’s business? Try telling that to employers.

Faced with ever-soaring health insurance costs, more employers are putting wellness programs into overdrive. They’re no longer hinting that it might be time to think about getting healthier. They’re making it part of the culture.

General Mills has made “healthy weight” a cornerstone of a wellness mission statement, launching dozens of fitness programs for workers at its Golden Valley headquarters and in its manufacturing plants. A Minneapolis marketing firm launched a “Biggest Loser”-style weight-loss contest, which morphed into workouts five hours a day for the most zealous participants. A commercial insurance agency in Minneapolis hired a chef to teach workers how to cook healthier meals. In Indianapolis, one employer proposed $30 fines for overweight workers.

Perhaps the most dramatic move here can be found at Treasure Island Resort & Casino, where employees and their spouses are now required to take a medical exam at work to qualify for employer-sponsored insurance. Included in the screening: a body mass index reading used to determine the cardiovascular disease risk created by excess body weight. If that number is too high, workers at the Red Wing casino will be encouraged to hit the exercise mat.

The American workplace is packing on the pounds. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, double the rate of a generation ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As we get fatter, diseases rooted in obesity are driving up health care costs. Obesity costs corporate America an estimated $13 billion a year in additional health insurance expenses, sick leave, life insurance and disability insurance, according to the National Business Group on Health.

Health care costs remain volatile. Double-digit percentage increases of a few years ago moderated as employers passed along more of the bill to workers. But costs are expected to spike 9 percent this year, up from a 5.3 percent increase in 2007, reports Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm.

Alarmed employers are now focused on changing the demand for health care. For a growing number, that means using the workplace to preach the benefits of eating better, eating less and exercising more.

“Employers are trying to take steps to make sure they can afford to offer health insurance,” said Adam Jensen, an attorney with Virchow Krause, a firm that’s working with employers to reinvent wellness programs.


Workers are skeptical. A national survey of 30,000 employees by Hewitt Associates shows that just 12 percent think their employers should be telling them how to stay healthy.

That skepticism was evident at Treasure Island earlier this year when workers received letters explaining that medical screenings would be required to sign up for health insurance. After employees were told that a full blood panel would be required, rumors swirled that the company could conduct genetic screenings.

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