The impact of weight loss competition in the workplace

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Abstract

Background:  The workplace has been identified as an environment in which primary prevention and secondary weight management strategies can be promoted (DH, 2008). Workplace weight management programmes have had limited success showing minimal weight loss, poor recruitment and high attrition rates (Stunkard et al., 1989). Team weight loss competitions have proved more promising although studies are predominantly American and have had methodological limitations (Cohen et al., 1987; Stunkard et al., 1989). The current investigation was a pilot study to determine if team based competition (without incentive) was more effective than traditional workplace education and behavioural programmes in achieving weight loss.

Methods:  Two established self-help diet groups were recruited from separate office workplaces within Lancashire. Each group attended a Healthy Lifestyle Workshop led by the lead researcher consisting of two components; a structured workshop incorporating an interactive presentation of a balanced diet, weight loss techniques, exercise and behaviour change and a worksheet on which participants identified personal goals and individual objectives. One office was randomly assigned to complete this on an individual basis (Group A), and the remaining office was assigned to a team based competition intervention (Group B), through random allocation into two teams, and encouraged to compete against each other to achieve the greatest collective team weight loss. No winning incentive was provided. The lead researcher recorded baseline age, weight and body mass index (BMI) and subsequent weight, BMI weekly for 3 weeks using the same set of calibrated scales. Independent t-tests were used to compare the final percentage weight loss between competing and non-competing groups and differences in weight and BMI at baseline and 3 weeks. Ethical approval was gained from Leeds Metropolitan University Research Ethics Committee.

Results:  A total of 42 individuals participated in the study [Group A: n = 17 (seven male, 12 female); and Group B: n = 23 (5 male, 18 female)] There were no differences between groups for age [29(8) years (Group A) versus 31(9) years (Group B) P = 0.55], baseline weight [81(17.9) kg (Group A) versus 75.6(16.5) kg (Group B) P = 0.32] or BMI [27.9(6.7) kg m−2 (Group A) versus 27.1(5.3) kg m−2 (Group B) P = 0.69]. The competing group (Group B) achieved significantly greater percentage weight loss after 3 weeks than the group participating as individuals (Group A) [2.6 (2)% v 1.1(2.1)%, P = 0.025].

Discussion:  Over a 3-week period, a team based weight-loss competition was found to have a more beneficial effect on weight-loss than traditional work place interventions and, provides new evidence to suggest that unlike incentive based programmes (Schuessier L et al., 2007) this can be achieved through competition alone. Methodological limitations prevent an understanding of the dynamics of the competitive effect on weight loss, although it is likely that the competitive element improves motivation to succeed. Limitations of this pilot study include small sample size and a short time scale compared to recommendations for weight management programmes. However, this study provides valuable preliminary data in this area.

Conclusions:  Team weight loss competitions should be considered in addition to educational and behavioural functions when designing an effective workplace programme and require fuller evaluation through adequately sized controlled trial to fully evaluate their long-term effect.

References:  Cohen, R., Felix, M.R.J. & Stunkard, A.J. (1987) Comparison of Three Worksite Weight-Loss Competitions. J. Behav. Med. 10, 467–479.

Department of Health (2008) Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives; A Cross Government Strategy for England. Available from: http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/documents/digitalasset/dh_084024.pdf. [Accessed on 8 June 2010].

Schuessler, L., Beyer, J. & Mischler, E. (2007) Successful Weight Management in a Corporate Environment. Disease Management10(Suppl. 1), 12–17.

Stunkard, A.J., Cohen, R. & Felix, M.R.J. (1989) Weight Loss Competitions at the Worksite: How They Work and How Well. Prev. Med. 18, 460–474.

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