Practical Tips for Running an Office Weight Loss Challenge

Sometimes I meet with companies interested in implementing a weight loss competition among their employees, but they don't know where to turn for solid guidance. The only advice they've received from their counterparts is, "Get senior leadership involved." While I agree this helps, there is so much more that needs to happen to implement an effective and, most importantly, engaging competition.

A recent CNN poll showed 74 percent of people identified "lack of motivation" as the biggest obstacle in staying healthy and meeting their fitness goals. Employee engagement is a main challenge and a necessity to a successful corporate wellness program. The tactics for a program will come down to the culture and structure of the organization. I've seen some organizations make participation in certain things mandatory (usually HRAs and biometric screening). Others have gone the opposite direction, making everything optional and putting the responsibility into the hands of each individual.

Regardless of the direction, we advocate implementing weight loss competitions and other fitness-related activities, such as steps or activity minutes, as part of the overall wellness program to increase engagement. As part of a comprehensive wellness program, with supporting efforts in education, exercise, healthy meals, biometric screening, etc., weight loss competitions are a powerful tool to jump-start a corporate wellness program and motivate employees. In fact, because they are fun, employee-focused, and outcomes-oriented (things commonly missing from many corporate wellness programs), corporate wellness competitions actually can increase participation in other programs and engage employees who otherwise may not have participated in such programs at all.

Here are a few practical tips for how to run a successful office fitness competition:

  • Keep the competition short (but not too short). Weight loss competitions should be 12 weeks long and never shorter than eight weeks to ingrain positive new behaviors and discourage unhealthy tactics. By contrast, a walking competition should never be longer than eight weeks because people get bored and you start to see engagement fall off after that timeframe.
  • Keep the competition simple. Avoid structuring a competition around multiple metrics (e.g., weight, steps, and calories). This causes confusion ("What exactly are we competing on?"), lowers motivation, and lowers participation.
  • Keep the prizes small. A good rule of thumb is to keep any individual prize value under $100. This amount is just enough to jump-start the motivation and participation but not enough that the motivation is there to cheat or do anything unhealthy. To be clear, I do advocate giving prizes but generally counsel against using cash as a prize.
  • Keep the prizes fitness- or health-related. Whether you follow the $100 recommendation above or not, making all your prizes related to health and fitness just make sense. A Fitbit (a fancy pedometer) is a great prize (and comes in at $99). For small, interim prizes, think water bottles, gift cards to a sports store, or even a subscription to a local CSA. For larger grand prizes, personal training sessions or multiple-month gym memberships work great. Whatever it is, align prizes with the goals of the competition by making them support the behaviors the competition is encouraging.
  • Keep competition on the calendar. Make competitions a regular part of the corporate wellness program so people can look forward to and prepare for them each year. For example, do an "exercise minutes" competition in the summer, a weight loss competition in the winter, and a steps/walking competition in the fall.
  • Keep your other programs going. A weight loss competition is not a corporate wellness program in and of itself. It's important to use competitions in conjunction with other programs, such as exercise classes, health or nutrition coaching, health screenings, etc. In fact, weight loss and other fitness competitions can increase usage and ROI of all other programs, so they are a perfect match.

In general, corporations sponsoring weight loss and fitness competitions should offer supporting programs before, during, and after the competitions to encourage and commit to the long-term health of their employees. Competitions are a push, a jump start to a lifelong effort, and a fun way to keep employees engaged -- not the silver bullet to weight loss and healthy living. Done well, corporate challenges offer both a kick in the butt and a pat on the back.

Nicholas Tolson is CEO and founder of FitFeud, Inc. ( in Washington, D.C.

Posted by Nicholas Tolson on Aug 02, 2012