How do I host a weight-loss competition?
April 27, 2016 6:50 AM   Subscribe

I live on a very small island and have been trying to develop a few ideas that I have, this being one of them. Our CMO constantly bemoans the state of the health of the populace based on the spike in chronic lifestyle diseases.

He also stresses the importance of exercise and healthy eating considering the rate at which obesity in adults and children is increasing. I have been wanting to d host a competition such as this for a while for that very reason. I actually have been wanting to lose some weight as well and while I am not obese I can understand how persons may not be motivated enough to commit to exercise and really losing weight; not because they don’t want to but probably because they are lazy like me. I take a long time before I really tell myself “look, you’ve gotta do this”. So it is in that vein I decided to try and have a weight-loss competition, I want this to be big.

I am not sure where to start but I know I will need sponsors. I would want to have a grand prize of perhaps $10,000. I would also want paraphernalia, t-shirts, bottles, towels etc. and other consolation prizes and money. So my questions are: How can I pitch this to potential sponsors so that I can actually get this off the ground? What exactly would I have to put in the sponsor letter? How do I get them to buy into the idea since save for their name on a shirt or other paraphernalia they don’t stand to profit from this? Or I don't know how to show they can profit from this.

Additionally, How long should a program like this last? Would a sponsor need to see some kind of certification in physical training? I also want to get our government on board but I just don’t know how to pitch it. How do I format the actual program regarding activities? I have ideas about obstacle courses and using the outdoors a lot considering the mountainous terrain. Gyms here may not be able to accommodate the amount of individuals I am hoping to attract. There will be a registration fee which also brings me to the question, is 10, 000 enough of an incentive to lose weight? How do I get persons really interested in this? Any information and advice, suggestions will help. I hope I have provided a clear enough idea of what it is I am trying to do here. Thanks
posted by Whatifyoufly to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
while I am not obese I can understand how persons may not be motivated enough to commit

Stop right there for a minute. Please let this event be organised by someone who can understand this instead: that for very many obese people, their struggle to lose weight has nothing to do with "motivation". That losing weight is not anything that lends itself for a competition. That s/he who in spite of every attempt fails to lose weight has not "lost".
posted by Namlit at 6:58 AM on April 27, 2016 [43 favorites]

Oh gosh, please don't host a competition. It won't have lasting effects, (see this story about a winner of The Biggest Loser).

Weight loss isn't the only indication of health. You want to incent people to make healthy changes, in small increments. Fat isn't necessarily unhealthy, being inactive, choosing poor quality food and other unhealthy habits cause health problems.

There are inherent fairness issues. Men typically lose more weight, faster than women. Younger people lose more than older people. People genetically predisposed to be thin lose more weight faster than those who have genetics that keep them heavy.

Muscle weighs more than fat. So someone can change their body composition from fat to muscular and not lose any weight.

There is so much wrong with your idea, both from the psychology of weight loss and the physiology of weight loss that you may in fact be harming the community, not helping them.

What if someone crash diets for the money and ruins their health in the process?

Yes, obesity contributes to health problems, but not all fat people are unhealthy, and losing weight isn't a matter of motivation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:02 AM on April 27, 2016 [32 favorites]

If the issue is chronic lifestyle diseases, give people an incentive to eat better and to exercise more by making it easier for them to do those things, not a contest to lose weight in a specific amount of time.

Do people have access to healthy food on this island? Do people know how to cook vegetables? Can you help with those things? Can you develop a program to help people exercise without the specific goal of weight loss for a specific contest? In general, focus on helping people care about their bodies. If you focus on weight loss, people will be more at war with their bodies, which does not promote health in the long term.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:05 AM on April 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

A ten thousand dollar prize would motivate a lot of desperate people to try seriously dangerous methods and even starve themselves down to an unhealthy weight.

This is a bad idea.
posted by meese at 7:28 AM on April 27, 2016 [30 favorites]

This idea is counter-productive.

People need to be incentivized to make healthy choices in their lives. For some of them, that will mean weight loss (or the prevention of future weight gain). For many of them, it will not. This is backed up by a lot of medical science that shows that once you put on weight, it is extremely difficult to get it off and keep it off even with healthy changes to your lifestyle.

By making the focus all about weight, you disincentivize people to make healthy choices, because you have equated not losing weight with failure. You need to come up with an idea that focuses on healthy lifestyle habits, not weight.

This is on top of all of the issues with competitions specifically: They specifically incentivize people to aim for large weight loss in the immediate short term, which (a) might involve unhealthy methods, and (b) is less effective than slow and steady changes.

A prize of $10,000 is especially a bad idea, especially if there are people in your target population that are low income. That's an amount that in a scientific context would be seen as coercive: People's need for money will affect their decisions, and they might actually end up harming themselves.

I know the answers saying "this is terrible" are going to pour in, and you might be tempted to think that this is just a case of MetaFilter group think and that you should go ahead and do this anyway. But no, it actually is a bad idea from the standpoint of both fairness and medical science.

Instead of having a weight loss competition, there are other things you can do to promote healthy living. You have some ideas buried in there. You could have a physical activity for which there is some kind of participation award, even if it is as simple as walking. You could have a healthy cooking contest, by having people enter "healthy" recipes using commonly available, practical ingredients into a competition. (Do not make physical activity a competition; that will disincentivize the people who are more out of shape--exactly the people you want to reach.)

You might want to reach out to responsible organizations focused on promoting healthy lifestyle for ideas. To be honest, from the ideas that you put in your post, it does not seem like you really know enough about the issue to organize a health event.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

My health plan offers a $300 incentive to get a physical exam each year. If the doctor determines that I need to do something, like improve diet or exercise, at the physical, I get $100. We then make a plan, and if I make good on the plan and visit the doctor again I can earn the other $200. This small incentive has been fairly effective in encouraging me to get healthier. It's also based on my personal doctor's specific recommendations about what would make me healthier and is not tied to an arbitrary thing like losing weight. Since it's a program lead by an insurance company, I also assume that there are reams of data behind it that show it's a net benefit cost-wise (i.e., I am less likely to have major health problems that cost the insurer money).

If you want to do a big competition with monetary incentive, I'd encourage something that is more like that program: flexible goals, inclusion of professional medical advice, making sure that every participant wins, and seeking to maximize participation.

Also -- a small island could be an ideal place to host community conversations about health. $10,000 could fund a pretty large scale participatory dialogue about health issues, where the community itself would define what the problems are and design solutions to them. Everyday Democracy hosted multiple dialogues on mental health using such a method. The idea here would be to build understanding and buy-in around the solution, because the solution has been designed by community members.

This kind of process would mean that you don't have to solve all the potential issues around the number of gyms, getting government on board, or anticipating potential negative consequences. You also avoid any potential blow-back from the community, which may or may not want a weight loss competition. If the community is mobilized to address the issue, then you have many people's expertise to draw upon to develop solutions.
posted by cubby at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming that this island has electricity and technology available to much of the public, but I could be wrong. Also, as mentioned up thread, is healthy food available on the island, and would people be inclined to eat it? You're not looking g for weight loss so much as you are looking for lifestyle changes. That's the hard part.

You have to keep in mind that a certain percentage of the population just won't stick with this, or even start. However, there's also a certain percentage that would like to stay healthy once they've experienced what losing weight and getting in a little shape feels like. So what would happen after the $10,000 was won? I get the idea of a contest, but that's a quick hit. Once the $10k is awarded people may forget about this.

So, with that in mind, let's say you were able to wrangle $10,000 for this endeavor. You want the best bang for the buck, the most healthy people for the longest time. Sure that money would make an enticing contest prize... but $10,000 would buy a lot of Fitbits.
posted by azpenguin at 7:40 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agree with everyone above that a weight loss competition is an extremely bad idea for all of the reasons cited above. For better ideas, see this article on how government efforts helped people in a Finnish town greatly improve their health.
posted by FencingGal at 7:45 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, I'd suggest looking into "The Daniel Plan," which is about how members of a megachurch were encouraged to make changes to improve their health. There's a book by that title that shows what they did.
posted by FencingGal at 7:47 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

As others have noted, simply offering cash for more most weight lost is a horrible idea that incentivizes unhealthy behavior. You should instead be incentivizing good behavior: eating balanced meals, exercising, etc. The problem with those good behaviors is that, well, they don't lend themselves well to competition. "Who can eat the most vegetables?" turns into competitive eating, which is the antithesis of actual healthy eating. "Who can run the most miles this week?" quickly becomes overtraining (and privileges people who are already in better shape).

Instead of competition, maybe do something to encourage positive habit formation. Off the top of my head, I think starting a club might be cool. When you join the club, you pledge to eat healthier, be more active, etc., and the other members of the club help you with that. If you're feeling like eating a bunch of hamburgers, maybe you can call another club member who can take you out to eat somewhere healthier. Have a pre-scheduled time for the club to run, or walk, or whatever, so you don't have to find your own motivation to work out.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:48 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think that if you're really invested in the idea of a competition, do what my YWCA does - have people "compete" against themselves, or "compete" in ways that reward effort.

So there's periodic things at the Y where you're challenged to work out four times a week for X amount of time, and if you do, you get a prize. (I usually don't, because I bike a lot and so adding an extra workout every week would be a pain, but still.)

And there's team challenges, where people form groups and compete to see who can put in the most time, or improve the most, or meet certain goals. The group aspect is motivating and also compensates somewhat for the fact that skills are uneven among people.

I think a weightloss competition is a terrible idea for the reasons above.

Does your island have weight loss support groups, though? Does your island have ways to support access to sufficient healthy/low-calorie food? For instance, I have an okay job but buying enough vegetables to eat as much as I'm supposed to is really expensive - never mind buying vegetables I like enough to eat regularly. Someone who is broke is going to buy carby and fatty foods precisely because they are filling and calorie dense - it's way cheaper to fill up on hamburgers than to fill up on spinach.

Why not take that theoretical $10,000 and divide it up into some kind of vegetable vouchers? If my YWCA said "work out four times a week for a month and we will give you $50 in farmer's market vouchers" I would be all over that like a cheap suit.
posted by Frowner at 7:56 AM on April 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Or have a series of cooking contests with tastings - you'd need to set it up so that the best spinach salad contest didn't result in "spinach wilted in bacon fat, topped with bacon", but still.

Or do a series of cooking workshops with coupons/vouchers - take this two-workshop "dinner salads" course and receive a coupon for a free bag of kale, or something.

Probably one of the best things you can do for people is to help them to both access and use vegetables. People need to know how to cook kale, for instance, so that they will enjoy eating it - but they also really, really need to know that they can afford kale.
posted by Frowner at 8:01 AM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Make it cooperative, not competitive. You want your community members to be encouraging and supporting others, not trying to beat them.

See e.g., You could contact the relevant government health office (state, provincial, national) for support and expertise. Chances are very good that they have similar programs that you can piggyback on.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:06 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Echoing the concern and cautioning against a weightloss competition. What you *can* do, is incentivize learning opportunities and fitness activities. For example - encourage people to participate in activities that teach people how to cook healthy meals, learning about nutrition. Fitness activities, games, & classes. Cooking competitions, etc, without focusing on the scale. When someone participates, they can earn an entry into a prize drawing. A way to give people tools to incorporate in their real, long-term life ("teach a man to fish"), rather than a temporary and potentially dangerous quick benchmark.

My gym has this thing called "Shamrock Madness" in the month of March, where if you attended a fitness class, you'd get an entry to win various prizes (free membership, accessories, spa gift certificates, free personal training, etc). There were opportunities to have multiple entries, win some great things, try some activities outside of your comfort zone - and focus on health and active participation, rather than weight.
posted by raztaj at 8:14 AM on April 27, 2016

Unlike others here, I don't immediately think this is a bad idea, as someone who has participated in several weight loss and fitness challenges (and organized one). I do, however, agree that they can be completely meaningless and even harmful. So it is key to make it be about general lifestyle changes and having the prize be something that is also going to encourage healthy lifestyles.

The best of such challenges I've done was at my local Y, and it was intensive for them. But the healthy things about it included weekly nutrition seminars and "weigh ins" that looked at % bodyfat instead of weight. So if we gained muscle, that was a win, if we lost fat that was a win, but if we just lost weight by starving ourselves, we'd likely have a similar % bodyfat and lose. We all committed to a certain amount of activity (in this case, classes, but I've also seen pedometers with # of steps work).

So think hard about exactly what to incentivize - is it food logs so people become more aware of what they eat? Increased activity measured by # of steps? In the challenge I organized folks set their own "healthy eating goals" and got points for sleeping more than 7 hours, eating with family or friends (instead of in front of a TV), and activity. The winners in all of the competitions got free gym time to help them keep moving.

To answer your questions more as asked: can you get a pedometer or fitness tracker company involved? Have their been any local 5k races or such that might have folks involved that you could talk to about what they did for sponsorships? Oftentimes your local media (newspaper, radio) can be a good first stop.
posted by ldthomps at 9:13 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreed that weight loss competition is a terrible idea, everyone above has outlined why.

My school did a pretty cool fitness challenge that I think could work in your context. Basically every week for the duration of the challenge had an increasing number of minutes of exercise that was each person's goal (so, for the first week it might be 60 minutes, and by the end of the competion it was something like 300 minutes). You could complete that goal wherever your fitness level was -- so if you hadn't been exercising at all, maybe it would be walking, or for people starting from a higher level it could be running or lifting weights or whatever. If you met the goal for that week, you would be entered into a drawing for a prize, so everyone was competing on somewhat of an "even" playing field. I thought it was pretty fun although I cannot say it had major long term changes in my behavior.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:52 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I gave up my car a few years ago. I mostly walk everywhere. I occasionally take public transit. I also have two adult sons in their twenties who live with me. They also walk everywhere. They are prone to car sickness and hardly left the house when I had a car. They go everywhre now.

First of all, in the years that we have lived without a car,we have repeatedly seen an increase in local pedestrian activity after we arrive someplace. After a few months, you can visibly see evidence of improved air quality. The plants look healthier and there are other visible changes. We also see evidence that crime rates go down and the neighborhood gets safer.

Second, at one point I was doing extra walking and consuming hot peppers to drop water weight because my medical condition predisposes me to retaining fluids. I used to look like I was a few months pregnant and I also had swollen feet and lower legs. I dropped a few dress sizes in like three months.

Total strangers began stopping me at work, in the street and at the grocery store and saying "I see you walking all the time. Damn, you've lost a lot of weight! What are you doing?" I didn't want to get into the details of my medical situation, but I would say "I walk a lot" and I would talk about healthy dietary changes I had made.

I didn't need to motivate anyone. All I had to do was set an example they could follo and feel inspired by. I was an ordinary, pudgy middle aged woman in ordinary cheap street clothes. It helps to have decent shoes, but it doesn't take special equipment or fancy training. Almost anyone can do this. I even saw one woman use her wheelchair as a walker to help steady her. After seeing her a few times, I realized it was her wheelchair and I asked her to confirm and told her "You go, girl!"

So, if you really want to see your island get healthier, let me suggest you start walking a lot. Wear ordinary street clothes. Walk to the store. Walk to work if possible. As much as possible, walk as a mode of travel. Other people will emulate you. They will lose weight. The air quality will improve. The streets will also be safer.

If you want to have some kind of competition, that's fine. But if you just want to see your community get healthier, just start walking more. It is a surprisingly powerful meme that infects the community for the good of all.
posted by Michele in California at 9:57 AM on April 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Introducing something like the Step Count Challenge to your community could be much more beneficial. It incentivises moderate, healthy behaviour suitable for people who may not previously have been very active. It's got an element of competition to it, but the activity you're encouraging is walking, so it doesn't require specialist training. The overall aim is to help people develop healthy habits that outlast the length of the challenge - I know people for whom it has been life-changing in terms of long-term weight loss and fitness.
posted by penguin pie at 11:38 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

2nd needsmorecowbell, RB, and others - no challenge :/ (A Step Count challenge, if you're def going to do one, maybe.)

One thing that worked on me (ages ago) was a health insurance plan that had a solid incentive scheme. Discount on a gym membership, points for documented health-supporting behaviours, etc. Look into those kinds of partnerships. If you do something with a commercial gym, make sure it's super close by.

Or, look into setting up a small gym on-site - free weights, treadmill, bikes, ellipticals, showers. And giving people enough time for lunch so that they can do better than just grab fast food (or, so they can work out at lunch). If you have a cafeteria, work on developing menus with healthier options (incl veggie choices and "better" stuff for people who just want e.g. fries. E.g. have them baked vs deep fried. Pork & turkey burgers (or just turkey burgers) vs. beef. Etc.) Who knows, maybe your employer will be able to score on some kind of tax benefit this way, look into it.

The changes really need to be deeper to help, imo.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:33 PM on April 27, 2016

Host a competition that is team-driven, non-fat-shaming and rewards people for increasing lung health/ capacity, reducing blood pressure if that's needed, reducing blood sugar if it's high. Reward people for increasing their exercise capacity, like going from unable to walk a kilometer to being able to walk 1 km, then walking 2 km, then walking a km in less time, etc.
posted by theora55 at 1:01 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

The most interesting thing I have seen recently along these lines is Love To Ride. It's a bit like a community couch to 5K program for cycling. It's had some pretty positive success in communities/areas that have tried it.
posted by flug at 8:51 PM on April 27, 2016

Here is one model for this type of program that (as far as I understand) was pretty successful.
posted by flug at 8:52 PM on April 27, 2016

I wouldn't host any competition which encourages people to aim to modify a particular physiological parameter without individualized advice from a doctor. Whilst it may seem harmless to encourage people to reduce their blood pressure or blood sugar, there are a whole number of ways this could go wrong. You might encourage someone to take too many blood pressure pills, over-use their insulin, or use dangerous weight loss techniques; which could have significant consequences. Additionally you won't be able to determine the ideal target on a population level; what might be a good blood pressure for one person could be dangerously low for a different person, same with weight/BMI/etc.

I think you'd be ethically, if not legally, responsible for those participating in the competition; and large cash prizes could easily encourage dangerous behavior. Perhaps you could look into why people have poor health; what factors of their lives and environment are leading to low exercise and poor diet? Perhaps there's a lack of good cycle paths or gyms, or good quality fresh food is too expensive or difficult to access? Perhaps people feel overwhelmed by the amount of health related information, and are unable to develop effective and sensible approaches to improving their health? I think you need to define the nature and causes of the health issues before you develop an approach to modifying them.
posted by DrRotcod at 11:57 PM on April 27, 2016

Thank you for your very insightful responses. Of course, if this were to get off the ground it would not be just a weight loss competition. Help would be enlisted from the relevant bodies and individuals -government health department, doctors, nutritionists, physical trainers and so on- to assist persons in making healthy lifestyle changes. I must say however a number of great ideas have emanated from this, things I would admit I didn't even consider. But it is still in the planning stages and I have time to marinate and incorporate all the useful advice. Thanks.
posted by Whatifyoufly at 8:45 AM on May 12, 2016

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