Being labeled the biggest loser in junior high is generally not a good thing.
But for Ryan Martin, a teacher's aide at Glen Crest Middle School in Glen Ellyn, being the "Biggest Loser" is a great thing. Martin dropped 28 pounds over eight weeks to win the School District 89 employee "Biggest Loser" competition in March.
His reward: Bragging rights plus $300 cash and the motivation to stay in shape.
The Glen Ellyn school district is just one employer these days edging employees toward living healthier, leaner lives, and "Biggest Loser" competitions, fashioned after the popular TV show, are one way they're doing it. Corporations are also replacing doughnuts with fruit, offering in-house yoga classes, sponsoring walkathons, building walking paths, sending healthy tips via email, and lowering health insurance premiums for employees who take health screenings.
And, for the most part, employees are eating it up.
Kelly Nordlund, a physical education teacher at Glen Crest, suggested the "Biggest Loser" competition to fellow members of the district's employee wellness committee.
Employees in the district's five schools and administration building had the chance to join in February, knowing the eight-week competition would end just in time for spring break. Sixty-seven of the district's 250 employees paid $15 to take part, which organizers said went toward prizes and helped ensure a true commitment to the program.
Each school formed a team, but individuals weighed in privately with their school nurse each Friday morning. Scores were based on percentage of body weight lost instead of pounds lost. Martin lost 15.1 percent of his weight.
Each member of the wellness committee also took one week to educate the entire district on topics like stress management, exercise, and portion control, so all employees could benefit whether they were participating in the contest or not.
"We've been happy with the outcome and what I found really interesting was that even those who weren't participating appreciated having the educational information," Nordlund said. "We had some people take part not because they needed to lose weight, but because they felt it would give them the incentive to get in better shape."
Now that the eight weeks are over and a total of 500 pounds have been lost, many have chosen to do it all again. "Biggest Loser: The Sequel" started April 1.
Martin said the competition was just enough to spur him into action and move forward on plans to train for a half Ironman competition.
"I've been eating better and watching portion size. Lots of chicken breasts and vegetables," he said.
"I was working out before, but I would eat whatever I wanted. I wasn't gaining, but I wasn't losing despite working out," he said. "It's good to not be in the battle alone. Plus a lot of people at work seem like they are in a better mood since this started."
Employees at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn and at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest are involved in a similar "Win to Lose" competition, said Kim Dwyer, vice president of benefit services at Advocate Health Care.
"Our goal is for people to manage, maintain or improve their health," said Dwyer. "Being healthy is not always about addressing the sickest of the sick. Keeping people aware of their own health status is important. "
Healthy options in vending machines, discounts on fitness equipment and meal planning services, personal health coaches, walking paths around the buildings, and free screenings are all part of the health care company's plan to encourage healthier employees.
"The challenge is finding what resonates with an individual," Dwyer said. "Eighty-three percent of our employees are female, and people in the health industry are in very stressful jobs. A good portion of them go home and then take care of family before themselves," she said. "Making healthy meals, getting exercise is not their highest priority. They are pressured for time."
Dwyer estimates that 15-20 percent of Advocate employees are also smokers, and beginning Jan. 1, employees who fail the tobacco-free test will see a $25 surcharge added to their insurance premiums.
"If they do smoke, we're going to help them quit," she said.
At Alper Services, a Chicago insurance brokerage firm, their 48 employees are gearing up for their spring "Walk the Talk" challenge.
The company's "Biggest Loser" contest ran from Oct. 31 through Jan. 31, timed to help people survive the holidays without the gift of weight gain. About half took part, according to Cindi Elstien, director of people and office operations. Cash incentives and extra vacation days for winners were a big draw.
In Alper's "Walk the Talk" competition, all employees wear company-provided pedometers to track their steps. Competition was fierce last year, said Mary Arola, of Winfield, who placed fourth by logging over one million steps between Aug. 1 and Sept. 23.
Employees also benefit from free flu shots, adult CPR training, fresh fruit in the cafeteria, nutritionist talks, and reduced health-care premiums for those who have a biometric screening.
Arola said the competition encouraged her to lengthen her dog walks, and to skip the bus and walk the 1.25 miles from Ogilvie train station to work, and back again in the evening.
"When you're going home at the end of the day you just want to get there the quickest way possible, but this gave me a kick start and I've kept doing it most of the time," she said. "I wasn't really in it to win it, but it becomes fun when everybody's checking the numbers each week. It motivates you."
Creating that company momentum is important, said Shawn Riegsecker, founder and CEO of Centro, the 2012 winner of the Illinois Healthiest Employers Award in the 100-499 employees category. Centro also recently won Chicago's Best Places to Work award for 2013 from Crain's Chicago Business.
Centro hosted its third annual employee "Wellnesspalooza" last fall, an office event where 75 percent of employees plus 15 spouses or partners opted for free on-site health screenings, healthy eating and drinking seminars, and more, and in return received a 20 percent discount on this year's insurance premium.
"We're a young workforce (median age 28). Lots of times young people think they are invincible," said Riegsecker. "This is a way for them to pay attention. To make sure all of their health ranges are in line."
Roughly 20 to 25 employees take part in twice-weekly yoga classes at the office, a "graze bar" provides healthy snack options such as dried fruit and yogurt, and Riegsecker said he tries to personally set a good example for his employees.
"I'm probably a little bit extreme, actually," he said.
"When it comes to the health of our employees, and I mean the mental, physical and emotional state, I have a belief that companies should exist to do more than make money," he said. "Philosophically, they also exist to create happiness in their employees and the people their employees touch."
When HealthTrack Sports and Wellness in Glen Ellyn first offered clients and staff a "Biggest Loser" contest, they called it the "Biggest Cruiser" contest, rewarding the winner with a cruise voucher. Now the cruise is gone and the competition has been renamed "Mission SlimPossible," said fitness director Deanna Castro.
The current prize: Six months of free dues for the entire family.
HealthTrack's January contest included 63 participants boasting a group loss of 707 pounds.
"The average loss is 10 to 12 pounds in six weeks" she said. "It's a jump-start to feeling better.
"We have found that a key is to have people in teams working toward a goal. The success rate for people to stick it out the full six weeks dramatically increases with teams as compared to individuals," Castro said. "That's part of the appeal of 'Biggest Loser' contests. It's about doing it yourself, but also doing it together."