03/19/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Must You Give Up Your Day Job to Lose Weight?

Every suggestion I made to a friend asking for weight-loss help was countered with, "I can't do it!" Her reasons were sound. After all, her long work commute meant leaving home by 5:00 a.m. for gym time at 6:00 a.m. was not appealing. Exercising after she arrived home, close to 8:00 p.m., caused her difficulty going to sleep a few hours later.

"What about working out at lunchtime?" I suggested. I knew her company had a well-equipped gym.

"I can't do that either," she replied. "We are urged to work out, but in reality, if we are away from our desks for more than 15 or 20 minutes, we are viewed as not pulling our weight."

"So you also can't leave your desk to get a hot lunch?" I knew the answer but had to ask. We had just finished discussing how important it was for her to eat healthy protein, a large salad and some whole-grain bread or crackers at lunch.

"I must eat at my desk. I know on the diet I am supposed to eat a regular meal, but I only have time to eat some crackers or maybe a protein bar and a diet soda," she told me. "No one goes to the cafeteria to eat there. We just buy something and take it back to our cubicle. Sometimes, if I am really tired, I go to the vending machines and get candy bars or an ice cream sandwich for lunch."

Of course she was tired. Who wouldn't be, chained to a desk all day after a long commute in traffic, and then faced with another long commute home? I bet she isn't getting enough sleep either, I thought to myself. When I asked her whether she felt she slept enough, she laughed and said of course not. She had so little time at home that she could not bring herself to go to bed three hours after she returned, and instead stayed up late to take care of household tasks, paying bills and communicating with her friends on the computer. Weekends were no better because her boss expected her to be available via email and cell phone in case she was needed for some unexpected task. She considered herself lucky if she could get to the supermarket and gym before Monday came around.

"I often think that if I were in prison, I would have a better chance of losing weight," she laughed ruefully. "Prisoners get prepared meals and an hour of exercise every day."

Giving up her day job to lose weight wasn't an option, nor was waiting until retirement to get healthy. Plus, the employment statistics in her field of work were too discouraging for her to risk challenging her boss over workplace demands. A compromise was the only solution if she was to lose the 40 pounds between her and a healthy weight.

We did find a compromise. Forcing herself to go to bed earlier meant she could get up and leave for work early enough to get in a workout in the company gym three times a week. Bringing the protein portion of lunch from home (usually leftovers) and adding a salad, bread, and fruit purchased at the company cafeteria gave her a more substantial meal than the protein bar and diet soda she was eating. And she agreed that taking 20 minutes to eat would probably not be considered "slacking off" by her team.

I suggested that she have a carbohydrate snack like a bag of pretzels during her evening commute to dull her appetite (by making more serotonin). This would take away her tendency to eat several hundred calories while preparing dinner. And when not at the beck and call of her workplace during the weekends, I suggested that she try to get to the gym in her apartment building, order groceries to be delivered (saving time and gas money) and spend one afternoon preparing several meals for the week ahead. On a good weekend, she might have time left over for her social life and relaxation. Her weight loss would be slowed by the demands of her work, but with these suggestions in place, she would lose a pound or so each week.

But why should she have to make all these concessions? Why do we as a society wring our hands over the country's rapidly increasing obesity, lack of fitness, increased stress and chronic sleeplessness, and yet make demands on employees of all levels and salaries that leave them vulnerable to these problems? My client did not have to take care of children, aging parents, or even spend time with a partner or spouse. But many people juggle these commitments that erode time and energy, and can even take over control of healthy food intake.

So many advertisements promote all sorts of gimmicky diets, weight-loss pills and supplements that supposedly melt fat and increase fitness. What good do these diet plans and weight-loss programs do if they are incompatible with work/life demands? We should stop denying that for many, the workplace culture is an obstacle to a healthy lifestyle and may even exacerbate weight gain and unfitness. If we don't, we should not be surprised at the continual rise in health care costs and the simultaneous decline of our health. Healthy employees are better employees, after all.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on weight loss, click here.

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