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The Link Between COVID-19 and Obesity: How to Address It With Your Employees

By Kate Rockwood | September 15, 2020 | Rally Health

Here's a surprising new wrinkle when it comes to educating your employees about COVID-19: making sure you don’t inadvertently turn off people who are overweight. 

As a benefits leader, you’re likely aware of COVID-19 risk factors, including evidence linking obesity with an increased risk of hospitalization and death. You also know you need to educate employees about the issue.

But as more data emerges showing a link between obesity and severe COVID-19 cases, experts worry that overemphasizing this risk may inadvertently push the notion that overweight people are responsible for their own illness or death. In the journal Obesity, one researcher cautioned that putting too bright a spotlight on weight can fuel stigmatization and shame — which run counter to the goal of helping people lead healthier lives.

Fortunately, you can have frank conversations about how obesity increases the risk of  COVID-19 complications, and they can empower rather than discourage your employees. 

To do that, turn to clinical research about the importance of sustainable lifestyle change in driving lasting weight loss, and offer a solution like Real Appeal that incorporates it into its approach. (Real Appeal® is a Rally Health® program, available on Rally CoachTM.)

Focusing on improving health via small steps rather than obsessing about shedding pounds can encourage all of your employees to begin a journey to better well-being, and help to reduce obesity-related COVID-19 risk factors in the process.

Here’s how to tackle the link between weight and COVID-19 in a way that will encourage action.

Recapping the Risks

The reality is stark: Being obese can double the risk of needing hospital treatment for COVID-19 and can increase the risk of dying by nearly 50%, according to a recent global analysis of nearly 400,000 patients by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  

These findings are alarming — particularly given that 42 percent of adults in US qualify as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control — and require a clear response. But stigmatizing obesity won’t elicit action from your employees. 

“Society has traditionally viewed being overweight or obese as a moral failing,” says Donald Williamson, PhD, a member of the Real Appeal advisory board, licensed clinical psychologist, and professor emeritus at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA. “Writing and research has debunked this belief over the past decade or so, but it’s still widely held on a subconscious level. Now the findings around COVID-19 complications may subtly reinforce this idea of the unworthiness of people who are overweight.”  

“Tough love” campaigns that invoke staggering statistics about potential weight-related health consequences simply don’t succeed in helping people lose weight.

Emerging research suggests that weight stigma increases exercise avoidance and depression, and other studies suggest it may contribute to harmful habits, such as binge eating. 

Feeling shame can also make it harder to change habits for the better, says Faith Perrin, a Chicago psychotherapist and certified nutritional consultant, bringing on feelings such as rebellion, avoidance, or uncertainty about where to start.

What Really Works

For overweight or obese employees, every pound lost can make a real difference in their health. Even dropping 3% to 5% of their body weight — say, six pounds lost for a 200-pound person — has been shown to improve health markers, such as triglycerides and blood glucose levels.

1. Inclusive. When it comes to getting employees fired up to improve their health, experts know some things  are proven effective — and inclusivity is king. Employers should encourage participation in workplace wellness programs, regardless of weight or medical history. 

Inclusivity is at the very core of Real Appeal, because we knew that targeting only seriously overweight people would mean many — even most — people who could be helped by our digital weight loss program wouldn’t sign up. In fact, we make it easy for employers to share the program with their entire workforce with tools like engage.realappeal.com. By casting a wide, inclusive net, we eliminate any feelings of being singled out or ostracized.

“Everyone, regardless of weight, is on a journey and can establish goals to improve their health,” Perrin says. “No matter their size, our bodies are designed to move and need nutrients and whole foods. Recognizing that each person’s journey is different while normalizing and discussing difficult topics is critical to reducing shame and helping people feel supported, which increases the likelihood they will make long-term changes.”

2. Small Steps. Focusing on small, steady, sustainable steps –– a core tenet of Real Appeal ––  is another way to encourage participation, and it's an approach that can have a surprisingly big payoff. A paper in Obesity found that out of everyone who signed up for Real Appeal, participants on average lost 2.8% of their body weight, with 23% achieving 5% weight loss. And of those who completed 9 or more weeks of the program, 36% achieved a 5% weight loss.

3. Small Wins. Another tip: think beyond the scale. “Helping people shift from perfectionistic, all-or-none thinking styles to a mind-set of moderation is important,” says Jennifer Shapiro, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in California who treats eating disorders and obesity. “It’s also helpful to celebrate non-scale victories such as eating more vegetables, walking longer distances, climbing a flight of stairs with less shortness of breath or improving medical conditions.”

4. New Skills. Finally, appropriate education also plays a big role in successful weight loss or management programs. Part of the reason that the connection between weight and COVID-19 can become demotivating is because it’s not well understood, which creates a perceived lack of control, Perrin explains. Rather than focusing on a scary topic with many unknowns, your program should focus on teaching concrete skills –– cooking balanced meals or incorporating more movement –– that are manageable and have a clear correlation with improved well-being. 

“It’s important to take a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to lifestyle change,” says Williamson. “Programs like Real Appeal that emphasize the complex psychological, emotional, social, and environmental factors that determine weight, as well as ones that function as a higher education system and teach you to manage your weight in a safe way over a long period of time — these are the ones that will be successful.”

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To learn more about how the Real Appeal program can support your employees, please visit realappeal.com. If you already offer Real Appeal as a benefit, there’s no better time to share it with your employees. Register on engage.realappeal.com to launch a promotional campaign, click here to access an Open Enrollment communications toolkit, or reach out to your Engagement Manager for additional resources.

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health