2014 Report: Work Fewer Hours – Or Get Fat

A US economist, Joelle Abramowitz, has written a paper reporting the findings from her study of the relationship between working hours and weight, measured using body mass index, or BMI. Abramowitz finds a strong correlation between the two.  She studied employees between the ages of 25 and 64 and found that those who worked longer hours tended to be bigger. Correlation is not causation, of course. What makes the study interesting is that Abramowitz doesn’t merely show a correlation between working hours and wait gain, but she also controls for a number other variables such as income, marriage and education; moreover, she draws inferences about why the correlation exists.

What does Abramowitz’s research tell us?

  • Abramowitz’s research showed that for employees in “non-strenuous” jobs, for example administrative jobs and ‘desk work’, an extra 10 hours of working was associated with weight gain of 2.5 pounds for women and 1.4 pounds for men. Abramowitz did not, however, find a relationship between the time spent working and weight gain for employees engaged in strenuous jobs (where some sort of physical exertion is required).
  • Abramowitz also found that for women, the relationship between working hours and weight gain is stronger than for men. Women in particular, she says, tend to substitute work for healthy activities such as exercise, food preparation and sleep. A separate study of middle-age women conducted by University of Monash researchers in Melbourne, Australia,  and published in the International Journal of Obesity, reports similar findings:  women who worked more than 49 hours a week gained weight - to the tune of almost 2% of their body weight -  over a two year period, and were more likely to engage in activities detrimental to their health such as smoking and drinking at unhealthy levels, and not exercising or sleeping enough (source: NY Daily News).
  • Abramowitz’s work shines a light on how working hours affects the lifestyle choices employees make which increase the likelihood of weight gain.

What’s the key cause of the weight gain?

Abramowitz draws a number of inferences in her paper about why long hours can result in weight gain, paraphrased here:

  • Long hours at a desk mean less movement.  Only a minority of jobs today can be described as strenuous, compared with the days when most people were engaged in the agricultural and industrial sectors.
  • Working longer hours means less time to sleep (which has been confirmed in numerous studies to be correlated with obesity), do housework and exercise, and more time to spent indulging in unhealthy lifestyle choices such as drinking too much or eating rich foods at  expensive restaurants with clients.

Writing in an earlier paper on the relationship between working hours and body mass index, Abramowitz observes that:

Body Mass Index (BMI) might increase with more hours spent working since as leisure time declines, the opportunity cost of time rises, and it becomes more costly to undertake health-producing activities…”(source: Joelle Abramowitz )

What’s the takeaway?

If your job involves long hours at your desk, it’s worth finding a way to include exercise into your daily routine. One Jewish Light suggests breaking up long periods at your desk with a couple of minutes of walking every 20 minutes or so. The study found that those who did this had lower blood-glucose levels than the permanently seated. At least it’s a start.

Has working long hours resulted in your gaining weight? Let me know through the Comments box below.

Main article image via Radiolasithi

Working Hours, BMI and Health Status
Springer Link
NY Daily News
Jewish Light