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Companies have found a new way to cut costs: by literally slimming down their work forces.

In the past six months employers as diverse as the New York Stock Exchange and U.K. retailer John Lewis have signed up U.S.-based Weight Watchers to help staff shed some pounds – leading to healthier workers and cheaper health insurance premiums.

American Express, the financial services multinational, now has more than a fifth of its 27,000-strong U.S. work force enrolled on the Weight Watchers' program, whose points system encourages more moderate eating and rewards exercise.

So great is fervour among American Express employees, who are being offered free Weight Watchers membership this year, that the New York headquarters hosts three meetings a week.

"Absolutely there are savings on health care," says Anita Shaughnessy, vice-president of U.S. health care and wellness – herself 24 pounds (10.9 kilograms) lighter than she was before she started the program in January.

"But these take longer to experience. Right away, though, we see benefits on productivity. There are fewer sick days because of fewer joint problems, back problems and other related problems."

At NYSE Euronext, Ed Hutner, senior vice-president of human resources, agrees. "Our people benefit – and so does our business," he said when signing up in January.

Obesity and its related diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, are causing problems – and bloated medical bills – for governments and companies across the globe.

Obesity is also costing large employers in the form of rising health care premiums. "In the U.S. over the past 10 years health care premiums for large employers have been increasing 8 per cent a year," says David Kirchhoff, president and chief executive of Weight Watchers.

"If you can find a way to hold the line by improving the wellness of the population then, over time, the savings are substantial."

U.S. companies are leading the charge, but the U.K. and Germany are no slouches either. British health spa operator Champneys recently launched "corporate well being packages" costing companies as much as £1,995 ($3,207 Canadian) per employee.

"I think it's going to happen over time in Europe," says Mr. Kirchhoff. "It's a more immediate opportunity in the U.S. because large employers are self-insured and pay health care costs directly, as opposed to have an insurance company bear the risks."

PepsiCo has drawn fire from union groups in New York recently over a $50 (U.S.) monthly charge levied on workers who smoke or are overweight. Employees are exempt from the paying the fee if they sign up to smoking cessation or weight loss programs.