A Weighty Question

A recent study by a British medical-research organization has determined that online weight-loss programs can be just as effective as their in-person counterparts, but experts agree that employee motivation remains the key to success.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
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At American Leather, a Dallas-based manufacturer of high-end furniture, there was some concern as to whether its workforce -- primarily Hispanic males -- would be receptive to the company's new weight-loss competition program.

"Hispanic men, in particular, tend to resist seeing a doctor -- there's a little bit of bravado behind it," says Julio Wong, the company's director of human resources. "So we were worried about the potential challenge of getting them to focus on their health."

Those worries proved unfounded: Workers at the 400-employee American Leather have shed a collective 1,500 pounds since the weight-loss program started last year, with some individuals losing (and keeping off) as much as 50 pounds, he says.

"We were completely surprised by the amount of spirit and camaraderie generated by our weight-loss challenge," says Wong, who credits much of the success to the fact that the company's workforce is concentrated at its Dallas factory and can actually see others' results and participate in on-site meetings and rallies. Employees who'd shed the most weight were celebrated at a white-tablecloth formal event, he says.

When it comes to employee weight-loss programs, in-person programs such as American Leather's are generally considered to be the most effective way of getting results. But a recent study by a British medical-research organization has determined that online weight-loss programs can be just as effective as their in-person counterparts.

An analysis performed by the London-based Cochrane Collaboration, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that computer-based interventions "have a positive effect on short-term weight loss and short-term weight loss maintenance," although face-to-face programs have slightly better results, according to the study.

Compared to no or minimal interventions, online weight-loss interventions are an effective strategy for weight loss and weight maintenance, according to the analysis. Although online interventions resulted in smaller weight losses and lower levels of weight maintenance than in-person interventions, the difference was relatively small, therefore "making the clinical significance of these differences unclear," according to the analysis.

Ryan Turnbull's personal preference for weight-loss programs is for in-person, rather than online. Even so, he says, both formats have their place.

"If an organization relies on in-person programs only, you're going to miss the people who prefer the anonymity of online," says Turnbull, vice president of employee benefits wellness programs at Los Angeles-based brokerage firm Poms & Associates.

However, much of the wellness industry is heavily focused on selling online-only weight-loss programs to its corporate clients, and that's a poor approach, he says.

"Every resource you bring to your employee population will probably be adopted by only a quarter of them, at most," says Turnbull. "You want a wellness program that offers as many options as feasible: online and in-person."

A third option has also proved effective in encouraging employees to lose weight, says UnitedHealth Group's Carol Calvin: Telephonic counseling.

"Our telephonic weight-loss program has proven to be our most popular option because it's convenient for people," she says. "Participants speak with counselors by phone, and they're motivated to stick with their goals because they know they're going to get that call each week."

Calvin, UnitedHealth Group's national director for health strategies, works directly with the company's corporate clients in designing employee health-improvement programs. Regardless of format, she says, effective weight-loss programs must have four things: the ability to identify participants' stage of readiness, flexible options, opportunities for "self study" and measurement.

"A good program is one that feels personalized," she says. "It encourages people to think about their personal goals, reflect on what they've learned and, most importantly, measure their progress."

Motivation is also important, says Calvin.

"About 20 percent of people, on average, are intrinsically motivated to stick with the program each day, but for the other 80 percent, some extrinsic motivation is necessary," she says. "The biggest motivator is when participation is mandatory. But the second-biggest is when you offer reduced health-insurance premiums in return for participating in a weight-loss program."

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After the company saw an 8-percent jump in rates from its health insurer last year, American Leather offered employees an incentive: Get a physical and participate in at least one wellness activity (such as weight loss) and their premiums would stay the same. It worked beautifully, says Wong.

"We ended up with a participation rate of 89 percent," he says.

Although Wong credits the in-person aspect of American Leather's weight-loss program with creating camaraderie, online programs can also foster cohesion -- even when the participants are all based in the same office.

At Rising Medical Solutions in Chicago, where most employees work on a single floor in a high-rise office building, Sam Ford managed the company's first-ever weight-loss competition primarily via email.

"People could participate and compete while staying anonymous and not putting themselves out there," says Ford, the Chicago-based company's director of product solutions.

Ford, who created and led the three-month-long program himself, used email to solicit participation, send updates, manage the competition and share dieting and other tips. Participants stayed anonymous, adopting handles such as "Chunky Monkey," "Fatty Patty" and "Diminishing Returns." Ford's handle was "Fifty Shades of Fat."

"People had a lot of fun, doing a little bit of mild trash-talking, trying to guess who was who," he says.

The competition was so successful that Ford, who lost 35 pounds, has just started another. Nine people participated in the initial competition; the current one has 16 participants.

Ford, who recently completed his first 5k run, says he's a changed man.

"I have so much more energy now -- I'm getting more involved in sports and I feel fantastic," he says. "Doing this was about taking control."




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