High Obesity in Certain Occupations

Date: 02/04/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

High Obesity in Certain Occupations

Driving a truck for a living is a good, steady job for plenty of people.  But it would appear that taking up employment as a truck driver might not be so good for your health.  According to new research, truck drivers have among the highest percentage of obesity when tabulated by occupation. Perhaps that old adage about truck drivers knowing the best places to eat on the road might not be quite so true after all.

The study, which was conducted by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, found that certain professions have a much higher rate of obesity than others, and truck drivers were at the very top of that list.1  The subjects were 37,626 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 who lived in Washington State.  They completed surveys annually from 2003 through 2009 that focused on questions about such lifestyle areas as dietary habits, exercise levels, and calculations of body-mass index (BMI) as well as information on their present employment and job title.  The researchers evaluated every odd year's data.

The analysis established that 24.6 percent of the participants covering all occupations were obese, meaning they had a BMI of 30 or above. This is actually a bit lower than the national average obesity rate of 27 percent of adults.  In general, the most likely subjects to be obese were older men with lower education levels, those working in lower income jobs, and those people employed in positions that required little physical activity.

But the differences were quite sharp between the rates of obesity among varying occupations.  As noted above, truck drivers had the greatest numbers of obese workers at 39 percent, with those in the transporting and moving industry a close second at 38 percent.  The remainder of the high end of the list included police, firefighters, and others in the protective services domain at 33 percent; cleaning and building maintenance workers at 30 percent; mechanics at 29 percent; those in administrative and clerical positions at 28 percent; sales personnel at 25 percent; and managers and executives at 24 percent. Any way you look at it, there's a lot of obesity out there.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, health care workers in a diagnostic capacity, which included physicians, veterinarians, dentists, and optometrists, had the lowest overall obesity rate, coming in at only 12 percent.  Other industries with an overall low rate of elevated BMIs were natural and social scientists at 17 percent; post-secondary school teachers at 18 percent; health care employees not involved in diagnosing patients at 18 percent; engineers, architects, and those in the construction field at 20 percent; and people employed in food preparation services at 20 percent.

As interesting as these findings may be, the study does not provide any clear distinctions as to what type of career might result in putting on excess weight.  For instance, truck drivers spend most of their days sitting and probably don't eat very well on the road, so a high obesity rate is hardly surprising.  But those in the moving industry, excluding the office workers, have very physically demanding jobs that should burn plenty of calories throughout a workday. It doesn't really fit the expected narrative that this group would be in second place.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that the only measurement of obesity used was BMI, which can be very tricky since it assumes that the major portion of any extra weight is composed of fat.  While this is often the case, there are instances in which an individual has a lot of muscle, and this gives a falsely high BMI. The result is that a person who is actually extremely fit will appear to be overweight by BMI alone. Beefy movers with a lot of muscle might show as obese on a BMI scale, when it fact they're not.  Other body measurement tools, such as the Body Adiposity Index (BAI), may offer a much more accurate assessment of body fat than BMI does,2 but BMI has been in use since the 1800s, so it is the standard method of testing and probably will remain so for quite a while.

This can cast some doubts on the findings, but the study should nevertheless serve as a reminder of two important things.  First, that way too many of us are overweight and unhealthy, and second, that certain career choices may promote weight gain by their sedentary nature.  If you are not employed in a job that keeps you on your feet and physically active, you need to spend some of your free time, both on the job and off, getting exercise every single day.  A 2011 study at Alberta Health Services in Calgary, Canada, found that sitting for prolonged periods--as you would in a sedentary job--may significantly raise your risk of developing cancer.3  Plus, without any type of regular workout, your body will lose muscle over time and your metabolism will slow, producing steady weight gain even if your calorie intake remains the same.  And being overweight puts you at risk for diabetes, cancer as we've already mentioned, heart disease, and so much more, no matter what you do for a living.

  • 1. Mozes, Alan. "Truck Drivers Top List of Overweight Workers." Health Day. 16 January 2014. Accessed 27 January 2014. http://consumer.healthday.com/public-health-information-30/economic-status-health-news-224/truck-drivers-secretaries-top-list-of-most-obese-jobs-study-683816.html
  • 2. Heymsfield, Steven B. and Shen, Wei. "Obesity: BAI as a new measure of adiposity--throw away your scale?" Nature Reviews Endocrinology. June 2011. Accessed 28 January 2014. http://www.nature.com/nrendo/journal/v7/n6/full/nrendo.2011.75.html
  • 3. Friedenreich, Christine. "Observational and Experimental Evidence for the Role of Physical Activity in Cancer Control." American Institute for Cancer Research. November 2011. Accessed 28 January 2014

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