Maintaining a normal body weight may no longer be just a matter of personal health. New research shows that it pays for companies to promote healthy lifestyle choices among its employees. According to a recent study out of Duke University Medical Center, obese employees cost companies more money than their fit counterparts—in lost workdays, higher medical costs, and more workers' compensation claims.

In conducting the study, researchers looked at the records of 11,728 employees of Duke University who received health risk appraisals between 1997 and 2004 to determine if there was a relationship between body mass index and the rate of workers' compensations claims (body mass index, or BMI, takes into account a person's height and weight and is considered the most accurate indicator of obesity). The researchers found that obese workers filed twice as many workers' compensations claims as workers who fell within the recommended BMI range.

Obese workers averaged 11.65 claims per 100 workers, compared to 5.8 claims per 100 for non-obese employees. As a result, obese employees  had seven times higher medical costs, for an average of $51,019 per 100 employees. The most common causes of injury among obese workers were falls, slips, and attempts to lift something.

"We all know obesity is bad for the individual, but it isn't solely a personal medical problem--it spills over into the workplace and has concrete economic costs," Truls Ostbye, co-author of the study and professor of community and family medicine at Duke, said in a statement.

The study also found that obese employees lost 13 times more days of work, than their leaner counterparts, averaging 183.63 days lost per 100 employees. Ostbye says that the results of the study should be a wake-up call  to employers.

"Given the strong link between obesity and workers' compensation costs, maintaining healthy weight is not only important to workers but should also be a high priority for employers," Ostbye said. "Work-based programs designed to target healthful eating and physical activity should be developed and then evaluated as part of a strategy to make all workplaces healthier and safer."

When considering the best options for fitness programs, small business specialist Barbara Weltman stresses the importance for companies to promote wellness programs among all employees, not just overweight ones. "Any program that you adopt can't be discriminatory," Weltman says. "You have to encourage all employees to take advantage of it."

While small businesses tend to be cost-conscious when it comes to paying for health coverage, Weltman says that the study suggests that investing in wellness programs could ultimately help companies save money. "The cost of wellness programs," she says, "may pay off for businesses in terms of reduced health care premiums."