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According to the CDC, 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year, making it the leading cause of death in the United States. Since February is American Heart Month, it seems only appropriate to explore how employers can help improve heart health through their employee wellness programs.

To help prevent this deadly disease, wellness programs encourage employees to engage in behaviors known to improve cardiovascular health (e.g., smoking cessation, physical activity, healthy eating, etc.). Though these habits are associated with cardiovascular risk reduction, establishing a clear connection between heart health and wellness programs has remained elusive. While several studies have been conducted to establish associations between wellness programs and heart health, they have not produced consistent findings, leaving organizations to wonder whether there is adequate empirical justification for these programs.

 

A Birds Eye View

To gain a better sense of where the data leans, a team of researchers recently conducted the largest literature review to date on the impact of workplace wellness programs on heart health. After examining 126 studies, the researchers found that workplace wellness programs reduced the prevalence of several cardiometabolic risk factors, including systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, and triglycerides.

The researchers also discovered that one aspect of wellness programs is more strongly associated with improvements in heart health than others: nutrition. When interventions included changes in the food environment (e.g., readily available health foods in high-traffic office areas), the impact on LDL cholesterol was more substantial.

These results are particularly informative because of the highly selective filter the team used to eliminate studies from the literature review. To justify conclusions about whether wellness programs cause improvements in heart health, the researchers excluded all purely observational studies and experiments that lacked control groups. They also restricted their literature review to studies on multi-component wellness programs because evidence suggests that these programs are more effective when targeting diet or physical activity. In total, 848 studies failed to meet their methodological standards. The remaining studies represent what the team perceives to be the best of the best when it comes to research on wellness programs and heart health.

It is worth noting that after obtaining their initial results, the team implemented additional measures to further limit the range of studies and adjust for potential biases. For example, after restricting their scope to the 82 randomized control trials included in the initial pool of studies and performing a sensitivity analysis, they found that the effects for many of the risk factors became smaller. However, the team emphasized that “none of these differences were significantly different from the overall pooled findings.” Moreover, they note that their findings highlight “the need to further understand the relevance of these potential differences in additional, large, well-powered intervention studies of workplace wellness programs.”

 

Takeaway

Organizations have become increasingly concerned with the scientific status of their wellness initiatives. This is why certain programs (e.g., biometric screenings) have fallen out of favor. Though there is much more to learn about the links between workplace wellness programs and cardiometabolic health, this meta-analysis gives empirically-minded businesses utilizing wellness programs to improve employee heart health the scientific backing they have been looking for.

These results also provide organizations with additional reasons to examine the benefits associated with different components of their wellness programs and choose solutions that align with the company’s wellness goals. For example, in the case of heart health, businesses should provide environmental nudges that encourage and enable employees to make healthier food choices. Similarly, they may want to expand the range of data they focus on in their physical activity programs, as recent studies find that faster walking paces can impact heart failure risk in addition to total step counts. Though studies have yet to confirm the effect of walking pace measurements on heart health in workplace wellness programs, including them alongside step counts may help organizations maximize the impact of their walking-based wellness activities.

As research on the impact wellness programs have on heart health continues, organizations should use the latest studies to build out the most effective components and gain more value from their wellness investments.

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