By bringing their weight-management programs to employers, health clubs can help reduce the nation's work force...in inches.

Psst. Want to know a sure-fire way to sell a weight-management program to an employer? Find a company with a fitness-minded person in charge, advises Lyssie Lakatos, a corporate nutritionist with New York Health & Racquet Club. In Lakatos' experience, owners and managers who have embraced healthy lifestyles are receptive to corporate wellness and weight-management programs.

Unfortunately, as statistics show, we are a society of overeaters and underachievers (at least when it comes to fitness activities), so don't count on buff executives in every corner office across the country. Therefore, winning over corporate management to weight management-especially when the management has no knowledge of fitness-can be a challenge for health clubs.

Certainly, the need for weight management on a corporate level seems obvious enough. Many of today's chronic health problems-such as heart disease and diabetes-are related to weight. Proper nutrition and activity can combat these ailments, but, the heavier people get, the harder it becomes for them to exercise-because of the extra weight they must carry. So they sit, and gain even more weight.

"It becomes a vicious cycle," notes Jackie Storm, a Ph.D. in nutrition and a 27-year vet with the New York Health & Racquet Club, which offers nutrition and weight-management services as part of its overall corporate wellness program.

Arguably, it's even more vicious in corporate America, where the majority of jobs require people to sit in front of computers for most of the day. And with the long hours that typify an average work week, many people have neither the time nor the knowledge to put together nutritional meal plans.

Productivity and Profits By implementing a weight-management program, companies can bring in the nutritional and exercise expertise necessary to get the work force into better shape. Still, pitching weight-management programs as a means to improve employee health won't be enough to convince managers to break out corporate checkbooks. The bottom line is that clubs must discuss, well, the bottom line. In other words, clubs must show that weight management can increase a company's productivity and profitability. Otherwise, managers won't put down their cell phones long enough to listen to a proposal.

Dr. Storm believes that a club should go to employers with a presentation clearly explaining the relationship between weight and the risk of disease. Then the club should show the employers how its nutrition and exercise programs will promote weight loss, thereby lowering disease risks and, consequently, health care costs. The presentation should also point out that weight management can increase productivity. Specifically, the club should stress that exercise and proper nutrition will lower the number of sick days taken by employees while boosting their energy levels.

"Not only are they in work more often," Dr. Storm says, "they are more productive when they are there."

In addition to giving people energy, a balanced regimen of nutritional eating habits and exercise has been shown to improve moods-another point worth noting during a corporate presentation. As Lakatos reports, a happy worker does a much better job than a miserable one.

"They look better, they feel better, and they are more productive," Lakatos notes. "When you have higher self-esteem, usually productivity in-creases." So does morale.

During the presentation, the club should also note whether its weight-management services are offered as a group program. There's a reason for this. In group programs, employees often support each other, providing motivation as they lose weight together. This can be summed up in one word: teamwork. What employer wouldn't want to do something that encourages teamwork among its staff?

The benefits of a weight-management program are not limited to current staff. A company that provides exercise and nutrition services for its work force possesses a powerful perk for potential employees. Every human resource manager knows the frustration of trying to find good employees; the opportunity to join a weight-management program for free can be the incentive needed to hook the best and brightest workers.

All of this may be enough to convince a company to invest in your weight-management services, but the money will stop coming if the employees don't start coming. Companies won't pay for a service its staff isn't using. So once the weight-management program is sold, it's up to the club to make sure that employees take advantage.

To raise interest in its program among the work force, the New York Health & Racquet Club sets up health fairs on-site, so company employees can learn about the new services available to them. A personal trainer measures body fat and provides exercise tips. Chair massages are given. Workers can watch a group cycling demonstration. For larger health fairs, the club even brings a team of physicians-such as chiropractors, dentists and physical therapists. Lakatos frequently comes with her twin sister, Tammy (also a nutrionist with the club), to answer questions about diet and weight management.

Not only are these fairs held on-site, so are the weight-management classes themselves. Once a week for 10 weeks, the club will bring the weight-management sessions directly to the employees in the workplace. "We make it convenient," Lakatos says.

Making the program easy and accessible doesn't guarantee success, however. The company still must stand firmly behind the program. When the New York Health & Racquet Club offers a weight-management program to companies, the employers begin promoting the service a few months in advance. Employers can hang flyers in the lunchroom, coffee area and the bathroom, letting employees know that the program will soon be available-held in the same building where they work. "It stimulates their interest, and they see that's it located right at their work site," Lakatos notes.

Dr. Storm also recommends that the companies do what they can to make program participation affordable. Now not ever company has the resources (or the inclination) to pay for club memberships for all employees. Some may opt to pay part of the cost for the membership, but employees may not have the means or desire to pay the rest-even at a reduced corporate rate. Still, the company can make the membership more attractive by setting up easy payment plans-such as giving employees the option of having small amounts deducted from every paycheck until the annual membership is paid off.

Retaining Staff Once the employer has accepted the program and employees have joined up, the next challenge is keeping participation constant. A program may draw the curious at first, but if people start dropping out, employers will pull the plug.

Clubs that offer weight management in a group setting can keep retention high by bringing people together. This can be particularly successful for a larger corporation where it's quite possible the program participants have never met each other before-even though they work for the same company.

The New York Health & Racquet Club starts its 10-week program like many other weight-management programs: with a weigh-in. Naturally, people are shy and intimidated at first; they are sharing an embarrassing weight problem with co-workers who may be strangers. That's why Lakatos wastes no time in the first session encouraging people to participate in a buddy system. When a participant knows a buddy is waiting for him in the classroom-hoping to share and receive support-he is more likely to stick with the program. And if this buddy talks to him outside of the classroom, discussing everything from eating to exercise, he's more likely to achieve his goals.

According to Lakatos, it's not uncommon for buddies to share meals together during the work week, or even take a walk during their lunch break. They can even brag to each other ("Hey, I lost 5 pounds!") and pat each other on the back for their accomplishments.

Variety is another prerequisite for retention. Exercise alone won't ensure weight loss, nor will healthy eating; rather, the two elements must be combined into a single program, and handled in such a way as to keep people's interest.

Since Lakatos and her sister are registered dietitians, it's no surprise that the New York Health & Racquet Club weight-management classes fo-cus mostly on eating habits. Still, a personal trainer does lead one session, which is dedicated completely to exercise, and participants are advised to get active. The remaining nine sessions tackle topics ranging from home cooking to eating on the go. The Lakatos twins also bring in new foods for participants to taste, such as soy-based products that they may not sample on their own.

Although a program may be interesting and informative, some people just don't want a long-term commitment. With that in mind, the New York Health & Racquet Club offers nutrition "Lunch and Learns," where Lyssie and Tammy will come to a company once a month to present a lunch session on a subject normally covered in one of their weight-management sessions. Lyssie says the "Lunch and Learns" are very popular with the employees who don't want to join a 10-week program.

Fees and Feedback Popularity is important. It's not unusual for employers to ask employees what they think of a program. If employees don't like it, employers won't keep it-especially if it's costing their companies money.

Although the Lakatos sisters always provide evaluation forms to employees at the end of the 10 sessions, Lyssie says some employers hand out evaluation forms of their own. However, Tammy and Lyssie are handing out the forms to see what they can improve in their sessions; the employers are handing out the forms to make sure the employees think the program is worthwhile.

Some employers may expect feedback from the club as well. Dr. Storm cites examples of employers asking trainers and nutritionists to sign forms stating that employees have gone to specific classes and sessions. After all, if employers paid for attendance, then it's only fair for them to expect attendance.

In addition to attendance, there is one other thing that everyone will expect from a weight-management program: results. This may require that the club make employees and employers alike understand which goals are realistic and which are impossible. For example, Lyssie has had people come into the program expecting to lose 50 lbs. during the 10 weeks. She explains to these participants that the program stresses healthy weight loss-that is, a half pound to 2 lbs. per week.

To achieve this reasonable weight loss, participants must keep track of their exercise and eating habits. Lyssie and her sister help them map out a course of action that works. And they make sure they enjoy the trip.

"We try to make it as much fun as possible," she says. And that, ultimately, may be the biggest factor contributing to the success of a weight-management program.