Stress, not Doughnuts, Explains Police Obesity Risk

Simplistic — and false — notions of obesity as a lifestyle disease might lead one to think that occupational obesity risk for police officers is simply a function of what police officers eat and their physical activity. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find studies that suggest a more complex picture. Recent studies suggest that the stress of police work may be responsible for police officers having the second highest obesity risk of all occupations. Motor vehicle operators have the highest risk.

In a study just published online in the American Journal of Human Biology, Dan Sharp and colleagues showed that the variability of cortisol levels — spikes and drops — in policemen has a strong and complex relationship with an officer’s risk of obesity. Cortisol is an important part of the human response to stress. Sharp concludes that physiological adaptation to stress may play a role in occupational obesity risk for police officers.

This publication is the latest in a series from the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study, testing the associations among the stress of police work and a range of psychological and physiological health outcomes. The investigators have found links to insomnia, suicide, cancer, obesity, and other health outcomes related to the stress of police work.

Another new analysis of data from the BCOPS study documents a link between waist circumference and early stages of cardiovascular disease, as measured by brachial artery reactivity. They observed this relationship in male, but not female police officers. They also found that the relationship was stronger in officers who consumed more alcohol.

The BCOPS study gives us very detailed insight into the into an occupation that subjects employees to well-documented conditions of chronic stress and the implications for obesity and other chronic diseases. Employers who are trying out wellness programs with incentives for health outcomes need to think this through. The employer bears some responsibility for work conditions that erode a person’s health. Employers who are genuinely interested in wellness will attend to this responsibility.

Click here to read the study of cortisol and obesity from the BCOPS study, click here to read more about the BCOPS study, and click here to read the study of obesity and early cardiovascular disease from the BCOPS study.

Police Car and Crowds, image from the presidential inauguration of 2009 © Joe Flood / flickr

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