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Upping Their Losses

For some employees, competition drives weight loss efforts.

On any given day in the Urbana, Ill., office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), staff members in the Poison Control Center answer up to 700 telephone calls from frantic pet owners. The center “has 45 people who take phone calls all day from people saying, ‘Sparky got into the chocolate’ or ‘Rusty ate the ant bait,’ ” says Danny Groh, a programmer in the office’s Knowledge Management Center.

“Because we’re a knowledge organization, we’re pretty sedentary,” Groh continues. “I have five monitors in front of me.” And desk jobs can lead to extra pounds. So, with the blessing of the organization’s HR department, Groh and his colleagues recently organized, managed and competed in the “ASPCA Fitness Challenge.”

It was an in-house fitness and weight loss contest. Participants vied for cash prizes and used an online “leader board,” much like a leader board in golf, to track individuals’ weight loss and exercise. The competition was open throughout the 85-employee office, which includes an animal behavior center and counseling and client services departments.

The organizers’ first step was to ask the ASPCA Midwest office’s health provider, Health Alliance, to provide information about diet, exercise and wellness programs and to calculate each employee’s body mass index (BMI). The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes BMI as “a number calculated from a person’s weight and height, … a reliable indicator of body fatness for people.”

“One thing we didn’t want to do is tell people how to lose weight, because we couldn’t do that,” Groh explains. “Me, I just ate less. This was a personal challenge, not an employer-mandated challenge. And we wanted to foster some sense of responsibility in the employee to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Employees shared ideas about recipes and fitness, joined one another for walks, and found what worked best for them. And that turned out to be a plus: “There were new relationships formed across department lines, with people getting together and talking about this,” Groh says.

Groh, 35, won $250 for finishing second among men; he dropped to 168 pounds from 195 and says he feels healthier and better about himself. “I have not felt or looked this way since I was in boot camp” in the Navy, he says.

The Variables

In recent years, “reality” shows such as NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” have spawned growth in contests and “challenges” that pit employees against one another, individually or on teams, to lose weight. Such programs are distinct from the noncompetitive weight loss efforts that individuals undertake on their own or with the help of wellness counselors.

Weight loss contests can be organized and run by employees themselves or can be employer-sponsored. Some programs are diet- and nutrition-oriented; others have fitness or exercise components. And some incorporate a mix of those themes.

Employer-sponsored contests can be operated by the company’s health providers or by an independent vendor specializing in contests. Programs vary in number of participants, restrictions, duration, rules for determining winners, types of prizes offered and whether employees pay to participate.

For some workers, experts say, weight loss competitions with prizes are appealing and hence more effective than noncompetitive programs. “Based on employee feedback, the competition aspect is a true motivator,” says Audrey Boone Tillman, J.D., executive vice president and director of corporate services at Aflac, a major insurer based in Columbus, Ga., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Board of Directors.

As the competition progresses, em­ployees inspire each other with individual successes and weigh-ins,” Tillman says. “Not only does the challenge bring out the competitive nature of employees, it also encourages camaraderie.”

Avoid Discrimination

But competitive weight loss programs can raise issues for HR professionals. Employers cannot mandate participation or apply punitive measures for nonparticipation. Likewise, most experts say rewards should be offered to all employees, not just those who obviously need to lose weight. Employers should be aware of any potential discrimination risk before addressing employees’ weight.

“Implement a contest in a fair, objective and flexible manner,” Tillman says, and ensure that it “doesn’t have a negative impact on any group or class of participants. Also, employers should clearly and routinely communicate to employees that the contests are available on a voluntary basis.”

Encourage employees “to seek advice from trained medical professionals before engaging in any physical activity,” Tillman adds. “Also, employees should sign a medical waiver releasing the employer of liability.”

In addition, HR professionals should involve em­ployees in planning health initiatives rather than work down from the top, and they should make sure personal privacy is protected, according to the report Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know about Obesity, issued in April by The Conference Board, a New York-based business research organization.

Employees may be sensitive about disclosure of their weight. Christine Eley, a senior health educator with Kronos Corporate and Community Wellness, a Phoenix-based provider of wellness programs, says that in conducting weigh-ins, Kronos can make certain that “we are the only eyes that see any actual weights for individuals and teams.” She says that “most employees would probably feel a wee bit uncomfortable if they knew that people in HR knew their body weights.”

Deciding Who Runs It

Employers looking for providers of weight loss contests should do thorough research, look for information on industry discussion boards, and get referrals from health clubs, medical centers and trustworthy associations.

As an outside provider, I’d love to automatically answer, ‘Go with an outside provider,’ ” Eley says. But if your company has its own on-site fitness or wellness program, “you may be fine running it.”

Managers at textile manufacturer BGF Industries Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., decided to run a program rather than hire a vendor. Paula Legendre Stop, PHR, benefits manager, launched a weight loss competition two years ago after data from the company’s on-site wellness clinics, staffed by nurse practitioners, showed that employees’ average BMI was 30 -- the threshold for obesity in an adult. (A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight; 30 or above is obese. Normal BMI is 18.5 to 24.9.)

Stop saw obesity as “a big problem for my company -- and we need to look at doing something about it.” She did research and talked to colleagues at other businesses and at a conference about how they ran weight loss programs.

GF recently wrapped up its second weight loss challenge, called “Battle To Get Fit.” Last year, 165 people competed and lost a total of 1,236 pounds on teams with names such as “Fat Guys R Us” and “Show Me the Money.” 

Weigh-ins were done largely by nurse practitioners at various plants, except in the Los Angeles office. With only seven employees, participants weighed themselves on the warehouse’s loading dock scale.

“The people who were on the teams lost more weight than the people who participated as individuals,” Stop observes. “They were all over each other. They had weekly meetings and would call each other and say, ‘Joe, I saw you at Bojangles this morning; what were you doing there?’ or ‘I thought I saw you get a candy bar out of the vending machine; what was that about?’ ”

Likewise, competition heated up as teams from various Southeast plants competed against one another. There was inter-plant rivalry, Stop says. “They would call me and say, ‘What do you think those guys in South Hill are doing? Have you seen them lately? Do they look skinny to you?’ ”

Stop says if a contestant’s BMI drops below 19 -- considered underweight -- “then that weight loss doesn’t count.”

Causes and Effects

Although contests vary in details, they generally are similar in purpose and in the motivations that underlie them. For example:

At Action Health, the employee wellness department at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., “We had several requests from employees for a competition similar to the TV show,” says wellness and nutrition coordinator Christie Hunter, referring to “The Biggest Loser.”

The nine-week contest included two teams, one with seven employees and the other with 10. Participants had to be at least 30 pounds overweight, and they paid $50 apiece. The goal was for each team member to lose one to two pounds per week through diet and exercise, Hunter says. Each team had an exercise coach and a registered dietitian who met with them weekly. Each member of the winning team -- the one with the higher average percentage of weight loss -- received $64.

In Wilmington, Del., at the U.S. headquarters of London-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, employees recently completed an eight-week “The Biggest Loser” type of competition with three 13-member teams and prizes for the top male and female losers. The program was designed and implemented by managers of the on-site Health Services and Fitness Center.

The female “biggest loser,” Michele D’Agostino, director of commercial support services, lost 13.9 percent of her body weight -- two dress sizes. D’Agostino, 43, had tried to lose weight before by dieting, but “the exercise piece was really a turning point for me -- the fact that it was more formalized and team-based, and there was just no way that I was going to let down the team.”

From April to June 2007, Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan Inc. (CDPHP), a health plan based in Albany, N.Y., sponsored “Slim Down Challenge II.” Fifty-one teams of two participated in a 12-week program, losing a total of 856 pounds, or an average 4.12 percent per contestant. Winners split prizes -- $2,550 for first place, $1,530 for second and $1,020 for third.

Participants had access to a free on-site fitness center, were coached by a registered dietician and a certified aerobics instructor, had confidential weekly weigh-ins, and earned incentives for progress, according to Mary Ann Roberts, RN, a health educator who oversees the weight loss contests. “We have 750 employees, and about 25 percent of those folks have taken advantage of the weight management competitions,” Roberts says.

Rewarding the Winners

Some employers adopt a holistic approach when declaring contest winners. Garden of Life Inc., a whole foods nutrition company in West Palm Beach, Fla., recently wrapped up a 16-week individual weight loss challenge called “Perfect Weight GoL,” based on a program authored by founder Jordan Rubin. 

With accountability “came a tremendous amount of commitment, teamwork and camaraderie,” says Teresa M. Miller, PHR, senior director of human resources for Garden of Life.

Top prize was a two-night family trip for four to Disney World, three-day park passes for four, $300 in spending money, a $1,000 shopping spree at a nearby mall, and an extra day of paid time off.

The program was open to all employees as well as their spouses and members of their immediate households 18 years and older.

“If you don’t have multiple people in the same household subscribing to a similar lifestyle, it becomes very challenging, particularly if someone is drinking Coke and you’re drinking organic green tea,” Miller says.

About 50 percent of the company’s 97 employees enrolled, along with about 20 family members. Competitors had to keep journals of everything they ate, and they wrote before-and-after essays. The company partnered with BlueCross BlueShield of Florida, its health care provider, to do biometric screening and to weigh and measure contestants. Contestants had to follow food lists and were provided free Garden of Life supplements and snacks.

In addition to amount of weight lost, the challenge factored in the journal component and “leadership and support of the participants and colleagues during the program,” Miller says. These additional factors helped Vashti Ali, a 41-year-old accounts receivable representative, emerge as the grand prize winner.

“I am now my perfect weight,” Ali wrote in her journal, adding that she hadn’t felt so “happy, healthy, motivated” in a long time and now walks with pride. “I love the way I look and feel.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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