"The Biggest Loser" spawns weight loss competitions around U.S.
When Erika Leckie’s 3-year-old daughter asked her if she was pregnant again, she knew something had to change.
Now, 34-year-old Leckie, who was pushing 300 pounds and had struggled with obesity her whole life, wakes up at the crack of dawn to start her workout. She circuit trains in the morning and then rides her stationary bike, or goes for a walk four afternoons a week.
Whenever she has an urge to head for the refrigerator, or needs inspiration, she relies on her “teammates” at the gym. When she is having a bad day at home, she will watch tapes of “The Biggest Loser,” a weight loss reality-television show, to keep herself motivated. Often she’ll watch episodes over and over again.
“Seeing them go through their transition and their journey keeps me wanting to keep up with my own weight loss journey,” she said, admitting that she needs to lose about 125 pounds to be at a healthy weight.
Leckie is just one of many Americans changing the way they approach weight loss. Instead of working at it individually, Leckie, like many others, are now joining teams to compete in weight loss competitions like “The Biggest Loser,” which challenges teams of severely overweight contestants to shed pounds through a strict regiment of diet and exercise.
Because of the astounding success of the show, which draws 9.3 million viewers each week, many companies and fitness centers have created “biggest loser” contests of their own, using teams to increase motivation and promote accountability. It’s a trend that has gone nationwide. At Michigan-based commercial construction company Elzinga & Volkers, 35 of the 60 employees signed up to participate in a version of competition. The entire town of Sterling, Kan., has even rallied around the concept, participating in a community-wide “biggest loser” competition with a cash prize at the end. For her part, Leckie is participating in the Curves “biggest loser” challenge, a competition between six Curves gyms in the Salem, Ore., area.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-third of U.S. adults are obese, the Surgeon General says obesity is a public health crisis responsible for 300,000 deaths each year. In fact, 3.8 million Americans weigh over 300 pounds, according to a recent obesity report.
“Making competitions out of it has really jumpstarted a lot of people,” said Leckie. “This show has really made me think harder and more about my weight.”
For many, participating in team competitions empowers them to stick with a weight loss program. Kathie Enstad, who is participating in the Curves competition, lost 5 pounds of body fat in just three weeks. Though she describes herself as an emotional eater, Enstad says watching “somebody succeed at something gives you some motivation to try it yourself.”
Weight loss competitions also provide incentives for those struggling to find the motivation to lose weight. The winner of the Curves contest, which ends March 10th, will receive a $500 prize. Patsy, who works at Elzinga & Volkers but did not want her last name used, wanted to lose weight, but kept putting it off. With a prize of a couple of hundred dollars waiting for the employee who loses the most weight, she decided to try. “It has really caught on fire in our office,” Patsy said. Though some only have 10 pounds to lose and others could stand to lose 100, “Everybody is participating. It’s all we talk about.”
In the cafeteria, posters adorn the walls with tips about nutrition and exercise. To encourage participants, pedometers were given out to each competitor at the last weigh-in, and Shawn Miller, a trainer at nearby Flex Fitness, came to the office to talk about eating healthy and keeping motivated.
Many employers are participating because they believe that increasing the health of employees also helps the company. Tammy Kiekintveld, accounting and human resources representative at Elzinga & Volkers, hopes that healthier employees will mean decreased health insurance premiums and fewer sick days. Gayle Kuipers, health educator and coach at the Center for Good Health at Holland Hospital in Michigan, has recently helped corporations design weight loss competitions, and believes they are becoming more popular because increased camaraderie in the office translates into better productivity. “They get to know each other better and they get to help each other out and that translates into their daily lives and their work lives,” she said.
According to Patsy, her office is no different. “We kind of monitor each other. We help each other stay focused and stay on point.” Some employees even go to the gym together to exercise after work.
Sharla Meisenheimer designed a large-scale weight loss competition at the Sterling Wellness Center, in Sterling, Kan. In the first competition, which lasted 12 weeks and ended in late January, 60 people lost a total of 600 pounds. The newest competition, which started Feb. 18, now has 79 contestants. Despite the incentives involved, the ultimate goal is to establish new, healthy eating and exercise habits. “We didn’t want it to be a fad, we wanted it to be a lifestyle change,” Meisenheimer said.
But that is exactly what Shawn Miller, owner of the Flex Fitness Center in Holland, Mich., is worried about. Instead of promoting health, he is concerned that competitions like “The Biggest Loser” will encourage yo-yo dieting that is ultimately not beneficial. “We generally shy away from things that measure success based on weight loss,” he said. “When people only use the scale as a measurement of success, they can really cause themselves a lot of problems.”
Kuipers believes the competitions are only successful if they spark long-term change. From what she has seen, many are doing the trick.
“When people have children and life gets busy, the focus is on other people,” Kuipers said. “In these competitions, the focus is on yourself, sometimes for the first time.”