photo by Alan Cleaver
It happens each day, all across America, an inspiration for an at-work biggest loser contest is born.
Scenario 1: A group of employees is standing around the break room picking at left over birthday cake when one person says, “I really need to lose some weight.”
“Yeah…me too,” chimes in another.
“Hey, why don’t we start a biggest loser contest,” suggests one enthusiastic employee. “It will be fun!”
Scenario 2: It’s the company wellness meeting and a committee is brainstorming on ways to reduce health care claims and improve the health of their work force.
“Let’s do a biggest loser competition, the person who loses the most weight can win a pile of cash, we can have fun prizes for others that reach their goals, we can do a big kick off event at the health fair to get everyone excited. What do you think,” asks the wellness committee member who probably already works out 5 days a week and clearly does not need to lose a single pound.
So, biggest loser competitions – great idea or big fail waiting to happen? It depends on how you approach it. We all need a little motivation and a lot of support to reach our goals. Internal motivation (where you don’t need anything else but your own will power), while the very best kind, can be hard to come by. Internal motivation mostly takes place when you hit a wall and realize that you must change, or else. Usually, a life-shattering event encourages this, like serious news about your health or the health of a loved one. This can be enough to shake up even the most dedicated couch potato and make them want to change their lifestyle forever. For the average person, making major life changes without some initial external motivation can be a daunting task. This is why contests, such as a biggest loser contest are so appealing. You get the powerful motivators of competitive spirit and cash or prizes to set a fire under you. Also, you usually get some nice structure and accountability measures. Like, weekly weigh-ins, rules to follow, tracking sheets to fill out, etc. In the end though, these external motivators are short-lived and you will have to rely on your own internal motivation to make a permanent change.
Biggest loser contest = powerful incentive to lose weight. Sounds good, right? So, what’s the downside? Well, while I admit to loving The Biggest Loser show, I also think the model is flawed in many ways. For one, the contestants are isolated from their real lives and everything that got them to where they are in the first place. Two, round the clock personal trainers and medical care make for a “too good to be true” situation that never occurs for the average person. Three, TV cameras in your face and a national broadcast are a pretty powerful motivator to keep you from just plain quitting in front of the entire world. This is not reality, this is television. I’ve seen the comeback episodes where certain contestants have gained back all or some of the weight. Even after this “ideal” scenario of having the best trainers money can buy and 100% focused time on just losing weight, lasting success comes down to one thing. Will you change your lifestyle or will you go on a diet and eventually return to your old ways? Check out the article, Does Reality TV go too Far? for more about how things work on the Biggest Loser show.
How does all of this translate over to biggest loser contests in the workplace? Usually, these at-work contests are good at getting people motivated and in the end, weight is inevitably lost. But, are the employees any healthier as a result? Will they keep off the weight once the contest is done? Unfortunately, a lot of the time the answer is no. But not always. It depends on how the contest is set up and run. Here are some reasons why these contests can fail.
- People don’t make true lifestyle changes – Instead of learning how to deal with emotional eating, manage stress, incorporate the right amount of physical activity and learn balanced eating habits, people will often go to extreme measures to lose weight in these contests. Some people will starve themselves, over exercise, use diet pills or adopt other short-term harmful behaviors. Once the contest is over, participants will not maintain these behaviors, and the weight (with related health problems) will ultimately return.
- Unrealistic goals – According to the National Institutes of Health a safe and effective rate of weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. To win the contests, people sometimes resort to the unhealthy measures described above to lose more weight. Rapid weight loss can cause the loss of lean muscle tissue which can slow down metabolic rates. According to the NIH, weight regain after quick weight loss is often rapid and participants may have a harder time losing weight again in the future.
- People are externally motivated – I spoke about this in the first paragraph. A nice prize is a great incentive but once the excitement has worn off what will keep the participant on track? People need to learn why they want to lose weight and keep it off, for themselves.
- Underlying factors are ignored – Participants who have dealt with a lifetime of battling with their weight are often battling other issues. Depression, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and others need to be taken into account when starting a weight loss program. If you don’t offer help for people to address these issues, you could be doing more harm than good by baiting them with a biggest loser contest.
Despite these arguments, do you still want to have a biggest loser contest at work? Below are some tips on how you can incorporate a contest and keep your employees health as the #1 priority.
1. Healthy Lifestyle Education – Don’t even think about starting a weight loss contest without offering educational classes at the workplace on how to eat healthy, exercise correctly, manage stress, deal with emotional eating and more. Without the proper tools and education, it is not likely that your employees will improve their health for the long-term. Set them up for success from the start.
2. Focus on Fitness – Start a walking group, a “take the stairs” campaign or even better, launch some on-site group fitness classes for employees to take during lunch or after work. Exercise is an important part of any weight loss program. Offering ways for employees to get some stress reducing, calorie burning movement in at work sends a powerful message about your commitment to their health.
3. Professional Monitoring – For confidentiality and safety have an outside vendor provide a qualified health professional (or team of health professionals) to come on-site to do the assessments, weigh-ins and some one-on-one coaching with the participants. If you can kick off the event with a full health screening, that would be ideal. This way, participants who are in high risk categories can be referred to their doctor before beginning the program.
4. Team Work and Support – The last thing that you want in the workplace is for the competition to get out of hand and create drama and tension among the employees. Keep it fun and light. Create smaller teams within departments that will support each other towards their goals. Just try to avoid an “each man for himself” mentality.
5. Go Long – Making the contest long instead of short will help avoid the mad rush to lose too much too quick. A six month or even a year-long contest with benchmarks and goals along the way will be more effective for creating lifestyle change than say, an 8 week contest.
6. Re-assess – Make it clear from the start that at some point after the contest officially ends, there will be more assessments maybe 3, 6 and 12 months down the road. Set up a separate incentive and/or recognition program for those employees who kept the weight off or continued to lose.
7. Don’t Let the Scale Rule – The scale can be a fickle measure of success. While it can be extremely motivating to see those numbers go down it is completely normal for our weight to fluctuate daily by about two pounds. The dreaded plateau is also very common and frustrating, especially when it happens just before the contest ends. And, if you are exercising and doing strength training (highly recommended) you may see less weight lost on the scale that you might hope for. When pounds lost is the only way to win your contest, you are shutting out a whole group of worthy contestants who are doing exactly what they should be doing. This can be extremely discouraging. Try tracking body fat percentage and/or inches lost in addition to tracking weight to make sure that you are giving proper recognition where it is due.
8. Consider Other Points of View – Be prepared for some backlash after presenting a contest like this. You must understand that some people are extremely sensitive about their weight and may feel threatened by a weight loss contest. They may feel like you are targeting them specifically or that there is some type of prejudice in the workplace against being overweight. You can’t please everyone, that is for sure. But, if you make the message very clear that this contest is about health and lifestyle change, not just getting skinny, you will win over some of the reluctant employees who may need help the most. You can also create some fun prizes and incentives for those who make simply lifestyle changes, separate from the weight loss contest.
Final Words: Make your wellness vision for your employees clear though your wellness mission statement, wellness campaigns and promotional events. Work on changing the wellness culture of your workplace. This means that wellness becomes an important and integral part of the lives of each and every employee as supported by the company vision. For more insight on utilizing incentives to maximize participation, check out this publication from WELCOA.
If you decide that a biggest loser contest is right for your employees, please keep it fun, positive and focused on health and lifestyle change. And most importantly, make sure that it is safe, filled with education and monitored by qualified health professionals.
Jennifer Oppelt is the President and Founder of Enliven Wellness Works, a company specializing in workplace wellness and health coaching based in St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay FL. She is a licensed massage therapist in the state of FL and is currently enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s Health Coach program. She is happily married and a mother to two children, Alchemy 7 and Ashton 1. Jennifer loves spending time with family, cooking real food, fitness and is an advocate of sustainable living.
For more information on how Enliven Wellness can help with your employee wellness, please email Jennifer at: email@example.com.