Whether or not you believe in New Year’s resolutions, talk of weight loss is impossible to avoid this time of the year. Every time you turn on the TV, there’s an ecstatic Jenny Craig spokesman evangelizing, or shots of beautiful people on ellipticals at some trendy gym – as if we could all afford to sign up for some pricy plan in this economy.
BUT WAIT. What if you could make money by losing weight? What if, now that your office football pool is waning, you created a similar challenge for weight loss?
Studies have shown that these challenges can work – just ask Jacki DeAngelo, a part-time student in Boston University’s MBA program.
For her “Starting New Ventures” class last semester, DeAngelo’s assignment was to make a business plan. She chose to create a platform she describes as “eHarmony for working out” – a way for companies to offer weight loss challenges to their employees in the hope of long-term cost savings on health insurance.
When the semester was over, she had a new business plan – and a few extra pounds, she says. So DeAngelo, a marketing specialist at BU’s School of Management (SMG), decided to run a pilot program of her contest within her own office. Here’s how she did it – and how you can, too.
Starting Jan. 3, the program recruited 27 people from the staff of SMG for an 8-week weight loss challenge. For the person with the greatest weight loss? A cool $325, with second place winning $160 and third place nabbing $55 for their efforts.
Three-and-a-half weeks into the challenge, Jacki is in second place. “It really keeps me accountable,” she says. “Especially since I’m running it, I don’t want to show up and be like, ‘I gained weight, sorry guys. I’m a terrible example.’” Since the start of the challenge, she goes to the gym six times a week, cuts out her desserts and occasionally takes a break at work to take a walk or climb stairs.
“I can feel results,” she says. “I feel stronger – I don’t see as much, but my pants are a little bit looser now.”
Want to kick off your own office challenge? Here are some tips to get it running:
- Put some skin in the game. One study found that small buy-ins to the prize pot help ‘up’ the incentive for dieters to meet their goals. In other words, “People really don’t like to lose money,” as study co-author Kevin Volpp told the Wall Street Journal. DeAngelo decided on a buy-in of $20 before the first weigh-in. “20 bucks was substantial enough that you’d think about it before you just dropped out, but not too much where it’s a hindrance to participate,” she said. Plus, having some prize money to look forward to can make it psychologically easier to get on the treadmill. In the study, participants lost an average of 13.1 to 14 pounds, depending on how the contest was organized and when they could win prize money for their losses.
- Get a scale – and use it. For DeAngelo’s challenge, she bought a small scale that she puts next to her desk. Every Monday, challenge participants have to stop by and weigh themselves – DeAngelo records any changes in a spreadsheet. These regular weigh-ins keep participants from putting their weight loss off until the last minute: each week, they’re held accountable.
- Use your competitive spirit – but keep privacy in mind. After DeAngelo weighs everyone, she posts the results to a website where people can check out their current ranking. Instead of noting the weight of participants, which may be embarrassing, DeAngelo ranks the challengers by the percentage of weight lost.
- Put your skills to good use. Lara Zelman of Good Cook Doris and Renee Hirschberg of Eat Live Blog aren’t just Boston food bloggers, they’re DeAngelo’s coworkers. As part of their participation in the challenge, they each try to devote at least one post a week to healthy eating. “We decided the biggest challenge for everyone we talked to at work is healthy snacking,” Zelman said. “It’s 3 o’clock, you’re starving, it’s past lunch – you don’t really know what to do.” To help out their coworkers, Zelman and Hirschberg created Healthy Snack Wednesdays – a series of blog posts with recipes for wholesome snack food, like this week’s baked arancini and mini omelets, which they then share with their coworkers as their own version of Happy Hour. Zelman and Hirschberg weren’t the only in-office talent DeAngelo recruited. Coworker Karen Plescia, a certified personal trainer, regularly contributes some fitness tips to the challenge’s website that include exercises for the cubical and general inspiration.
- Get everyone involved. On the website, DeAngelo tries to pool the resources of everyone in the contest. “If people have a personal fitness website that they’ve used before that’s helpful for them, that’s posted,” she said. There’s a page where people can announce upcoming chances for exercise – “If people are going for a walk or something, if they want some company, they can post that and then get some people to join them.”
- Don’t go overboard. Despite what beauty magazines may promise (“Lose 10 pounds in one week!”), it really isn’t healthy to lose too much weight too quickly. In DeAngelo’s office challenge, participants are aiming to get rid of 1 to 2 pounds a week. “It’s really supposed to make people more conscious about what decisions they make and to think about small ways that they can change those to be a little bit healthier – it’s not supposed to be like, ‘Try and win $300!’” she says.
So far, DeAngelo says, she and her coworkers have lost about 50 pounds collectively. Still, she sees more of these contests in her future.
“I’m thinking about running version two prior to bathing suit season or something,” she laughs.
- Radio Boston: Skip the Gym? Pay up.