Martha’s Vineyard Hospital employees shed pounds for big payoff

Like so many things, slow and steady is the healthiest way to lose weight — at a rate of one or two pounds per week, say. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital will be experiencing some downsizing this winter. But not to worry – the cutbacks will be in calories and the belt tightening will be of the literal variety.

Over 50 staff members from the hospital and Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility are currently participating in a weight-loss challenge based on the hit NBC reality show, “The Biggest Loser,” in which overweight contestants compete for cash prizes by attempting to lose the most weight over the course of the show’s 13-week season.

The contest’s organizer, Allison Walker, who is the administrative coordinator for Windemere, had originally planned to involve only Windemere staff in the 10-week challenge, but word spread from the nursing facility’s monthly newsletter. “We were a little overwhelmed,” Ms. Walker said of the turnout. “We were expecting maybe 20 or 25 people, but we didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t include everyone.”

Ms. Walker said it is a good time for people to follow through on New Year’s resolutions. “Sometimes people need a little encouragement and accountability,” she said.

The 55 men and women who have paid a $20 commitment fee to take part in the challenge represent employees from 19 departments, including two physicians. “There’s over 10,000 pounds of our workforce involved,” Ms. Walker said. “The heaviest contestant weighs over 300 pounds. Our lightweight is 117 pounds. We consider her a donation.”

The idea for the challenge came from Libby Rocklin, one of Windemere’s nursing coordinators. She was inspired by her sister who works for a facility in New York state that has run a similar contest for the past seven years.

Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Walker, the contest is a highly organized program with multiple incentives, an expanding list of sponsored weight loss programs and activities, a weekly newsletter, and a goal of promoting long-term weight loss. “We are encouraging people to be healthy about it and keep it off,” Ms. Walker said.

The contestant who loses the highest percentage of their total body weight by March 15 will win a cash prize of $550. The second place prize is $350. However, there is a catch. The winners will only collect half of the prize money at the final weigh-in. In order to cash in on the other half, the winners have to keep the weight off for eight more weeks. If they gain any more than four pounds, the prize money will be divided up among those who have maintained their weight loss.

All those who lose at least 10 pounds at the end of the competition will get half of their buy-in money back. “Healthy weight loss is one to two pounds a week,” Ms. Walker said.

After every Thursday weigh-in, weekly prizes will be awarded to the man and woman who knocked off the most weight for that week. After the first week, 40 of the contestants had lost weight and were eligible for a drawing for an additional weekly prize. The donated prizes include gym club memberships and personal training sessions, as well as gift cards to local stores. Anyone interested in donating a prize can contact Ms. Walker at 508-862-1940

A number of health and fitness experts are pitching in by offering dietary evaluations, fitness assessments, and group exercise classes. “Help will be provided all along the way,” Ms. Walker said.

A healthy foods potluck is scheduled for the half-way mark. Also in the works is a contest to guess the caloric intake of a cafeteria meal.

A weekly newsletter provides updates, tips and articles from the international Biggest Loser Club website and an outreach resource for those interested in seeking exercise partners. In the first week’s newsletter, Ms. Walker invited women to join her for cardio and strength training workouts and a weekly walk around West Chop. Ms. Walker also encourages participants to share tips, suggestions and recipes.

Ms. Walker makes the disclaimer in the newsletter, “I am not a fitness guru, nutritionist, dietician, personal trainer or certified at anything!” However, she does know a bit about weigh loss, having dropped about 100 pounds in the past seven years. She is hoping that the ten-week competition will help her lose the final 30 that will put her at her weight loss goal.

“People are excited: they’re happy to have some accountability,” Ms. Walker said. “The first weigh-ins were great. People have seen the weight come off.”

She said that the contest has generated some individual competition among departments and has led to much good-natured teasing as well as encouragement. “The cafeteria is hilarious at lunchtime. People sit down and say ‘Don’t judge me by what I’m eating.'”

Apparently having a team of watchdogs looking on at all times has proven helpful, if annoying at times. “People are taking it seriously who need to take it seriously,” Ms. Walker said. “But mostly people are having fun.” How often can you say that about a weight loss regime?”

Robert Brabyn, a custodian and maintenance man for Windemere whose nine-pound loss after week one earned him the men’s cash prize, is very obviously having fun. “I tried to make a side bet with some of the women at Windemere, but they wouldn’t go for it,” he said.

Mr. Brabyn recently regained 30 pounds that he lost over the course of a year of strict dieting and exercise. He jumped at the opportunity to get back on a weight loss program. “I’ve been wanting to do it because of recent back issues,” he said. “I want to slim down to make my job easier and be healthier.”

“I wanted to lose weight anyway, and this has provided a little extra motivation.” Laughing, Mr. Brabyn added, “It tipped the scale in the lighter mode.”