In what sounds like a script for the latest reality-TV show, 200 teachers, administrators, and other school employees working in San Diego County, Calif., have accepted a challenge to achieve personal weight-loss goals over the next year.
Employees from 11 districts in the county are taking part in this first phase of the competition, which is sponsored and organized by the Southern California Schools Voluntary Employee Benefits Association, or VEBA, a labor and management purchasing pool for health-care services.
Participants, who had their first official weigh-in last week, will be organized into 40 groups of five. They will receive personal support from one another as well as from a “care coordinator.” They will also have access to an extensive variety of diet, nutrition, and exercise resources designed to help them reach their goals.
The objective goes beyond just a number on a scale, says George McGregor, the administrator of the VEBA plan. “It’s that you learn how to exercise, that you learn how to cook,” and incorporate those changes into a lifestyle, he said.
At a time when obesity among adults in the United States has become a leading but generally preventable health problem, the initiative was also launched as a way to slow down spiraling health-care costs.
And while schools across the country have instituted programs designed to prevent and curb obesity among children, the San Diego County program targets those who often serve as role models for students.
The employee-benefits association estimates that for every 10 pounds the participants lose, $500 in health-care expenses will be saved. If each person involved in the program loses at least that much weight, the savings will reach $100,000.
Setting an Example
A U.S. Surgeon General’s report from 2003 found that health expenses related to obesity reached $117 billion nationally in 2000 and were expected to continue rising. An astounding 64.5 percent of adult Americans are considered overweight or obese, a problem that began increasing in the 1960s and has not abated, according to the American Obesity Association.
The average age of the educators and other school staff members who volunteered for the contest—which VEBA hopes will serve as an example to districts throughout California—is 45, and the average weight is 235 pounds with a body-mass index of 40. Experts say that when BMI—a formula that adjusts weight for height—is greater than 30, the relative risk of death related to being overweight increases by 50 percent.
Built into the program are incentives and rewards, such as gift certificates to an online health-products store and the ultimate prize of a two-night stay at a luxury resort for the team that loses the most weight. The second-place team will get sundry gift certificates.
Those who stay in the competition will get rewards for meeting personal quarterly goals and when they complete the program.
The lion’s share of the participants, 84 percent, are women. Asthma, diabetes, and concerns about cancer were a few of the reasons the participants cited for wanting to join the endeavor.
Mary-Allegra McKinnell, a 2nd grade teacher at Central Elementary School in National City, Calif., says she joined in hopes of fitting into her “skinny” clothes again, getting in good shape to have a baby in a few years, and building stronger partnerships with her co-workers.
But the 29-year-old is also hoping that her experience will benefit her students, and that the whole class will learn about healthier eating and exercise habits. She’s encouraged by the recent addition of a new physical education program at the school that allows her to get exercise with her students.
“I let them know that I’m going to be watching what I eat better,” Ms. McKinnell said. “They need to help keep me honest with my program.”
Another participant, Jackie Osborne, sees the obesity problem from both personal and professional angles. As a human-resources manager for the San Diego Community College District in Chula Vista, Calif., Ms. Osborne and her co-workers felt that a weight-loss and -management program would be a more effective way to control costs than offering the more common smoking-cessation or diabetes-prevention programs.
But at 215 pounds, and overweight her whole life, Ms. Osborne is also looking forward to how this venture can change her life. At 53, she has had two knee surgeries and was growing more concerned about the hazards caused by being overweight.
“I am participating in this program because I am really concerned about the health risks of my weight, and I know I need to take drastic action and make some changes before I get any older,” she wrote in a testimonial for the program. “I know this program will work for me because they are really forcing us to stop living in isolation and put ourselves out there. My slogan for the year is ‘moving forward’ so I can’t slack off this year.”
At the end of the one-year program, Ms. Osborne hopes to have lost 10 percent of her weight, and eventually bring it down to 145.
Judith Stern, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, and the vice president of the Washington-based American Obesity Association, said the initiative has the potential to benefit both the school workers and students if the adults set realistic weight-loss goals. Other measures of overall health, such as lowering blood pressure, should also be emphasized, she said.
‘Keeping It Off’
“What I would like to see is an understanding that obesity is very complex,” Ms. Stern said. “You also need continued support. The challenge is keeping it off.”
Mr. McGregor agreed, and said the true test of the effort won’t be seen next March 1, when the participants see what they’ve achieved with the help of their teams and their counselors. Instead, he said, it will be in two years, when the employee-benefits association checks back to see whether the original group is maintaining a healthier lifestyle.
Many more people were interested in joining the program than VEBA was able to accommodate in the pilot phase, Mr. McGregor added. But he hopes to be able to expand it even before the pilot ends.
“If we can demonstrate that this works, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t,” he said, “then we’ll roll out a different group of 200 each month.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Calif. School Workers Compete to Lose Weight