More than 11 million people tuned in to watch Marty Wolff and other contestants on season three of “The Biggest Loser” weigh in for the show's finale in 2006. Despite losing 146 pounds — or 40 percent of his body weight — on the show, Wolff didn't win the title of biggest loser. However, he did gain a new mission for life: to show others what he learned about fitness.

Using the popularity of the show and his inspiring story, Wolff and his fiancée, Amy Hildreth, another season three contestant, teamed up with the YMCA of Greater Omaha (NE) to create their own weight-loss contest, Shape Up Omaha. Designed as closely as possible to the popular reality TV show, the competition is attracting new people to fitness, Wolff says.

“The TV show is definitely a positive thing for health clubs,” he says. “We're getting a different kind of client — the client coming off the couch. Our job is educating people what the club is all about.”

Wolff and Hildreth aren't the only ones spring-boarding off the show's popularity. Fitness facilities across the country are holding weight-loss competitions similar in style to “The Biggest Loser.” Most club owners say that these types of contests are worth doing — even though the competitions can take considerable resources and staff time to implement — because they bring excitement to a facility and attract deconditioned people who are reluctant to work out at a gym.

“Contests like this help decrease intimidation because [participants] are with others who are like them,” says Dr. Joey Antonio, National Strength and Conditioning Association board member and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “There is a fear factor when an individual starts going to the gym. They think everyone is fit. They're not, but they think that.”

Mark Koops, executive producer of “The Biggest Loser,” isn't surprised that health clubs have borrowed the concept. He has seen “The Biggest Loser”-style contests pop up in a number of places, from gyms and high schools to doctor's offices and hospitals.

“The fact that clubs have embraced and encourage people to form their own version of [the show] is great and provides motivation and structure for people to be accountable,” says Koops. “It keeps people motivated, especially when they first start.”

Name of the Game

“The Biggest Loser” helps severely overweight and obese participants undergo a radical physical makeover through diet and exercise as they compete for a grand prize of $250,000. The series gathers 18 contestants from across the country to face challenges, temptations, weigh-ins and eliminations, until the final contestant remains to claim the title of “the biggest loser.” All contestants work out under the supervision of personal trainers during their stay.

As a sponsor of “The Biggest Loser” for the last five years (the show is currently casting for its sixth season), 24 Hour Fitness has gained significant publicity. The company sets up the gym for the show each season, and some of the company's more than 400 locations have served as casting call locations for the show.

The most recent season of the show features couples, so 24 Hour Fitness promoted couples personal training at its clubs. The club company also offered combination memberships and “The Biggest Loser” personal training packages with special prices.

“We've found the tie-in to be very successful, and we normally run [the promotions] for 60 to 90 days,” says Tony Wells, chief marketing officer for 24 Hour Fitness. “They correlate with the show, we advertise during the show, and people have top-of-mind awareness because of it.”

This past fall, a 24 Hour Fitness location in Houston, TX, partnered with its local NBC affiliate to host a “The Biggest Loser” in-club challenge. All of the challenge's participants were successful in their weight-loss efforts and inspired their community to get fit, says Liz Townsend, regional vice president of 24 Hour Fitness.

“We wanted to showcase some of our local real-life Houstonians through their path to achieving their weight-loss goals,” Townsend says. “The program overall was a huge success, from our busy working mother of two to our couple who had struggled with weight loss their entire lives.”

The sponsorship of the show is perfect from a marketing standpoint because the show mirrors what happens in 24 Hour Fitness clubs every day, Wells says.

“There's a lot of correlation between what happens on the show and how members engage with our brand,” he says. “Through the use of personal training, [contestants] accomplish their goals. Our clubs do that every day, just on a smaller scale with less publicity and fanfare.”

The Biggest Winners

Although 24 Hour Fitness may be the exclusive partner of the show — in fact, clubs can be sued if they use “The Biggest Loser” name because it's a trademarked property of NBC — plenty of fitness facilities are finding success by recreating similar weight-loss competitions in house.

“The Biggest Loser” served as inspiration for Grand Forks (ND) Air Force Base's Sports, Fitness and Aquatics Center's weight-loss competition last year. By telling people the contest was similar in format to the TV show, Geraldine Cronk, fitness director at the fitness center, says that participants who had seen the show understood better what to expect from the base's contest. It was especially good for people who had never really been in the gym or hadn't worked out in a long time, she says.

The competition included 40 teams of two people. Teams consisted of spouses, co-workers, friends, and even a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law team. Body weight was taken together for each team, making each individual accountable, she says.

“The partners know each other and motivate each other,” Cronk says. “Even in couples, if a husband was deployed, he'd go to a fitness center where he was and e-mail his weight in from afar so that his wife could continue in the game and not get discouraged and stop.”

Last year, the winning team lost 15 percent of its combined body fat during the three-month competition. The second place team lost 13 percent of its combined body fat.

Due to the program's success, Cronk wanted to do another competition this year but was deployed to Korea from her position in the fitness center.

“If I had a chance, I'd do it again,” she says.

The Stillwater Family YCMA in Stillwater, OK, started its first “The Biggest Loser”-style weight-loss competition in January. The competition is open to members and nonmembers, costing $10 to $48, depending on individual or team status and if the participant is a member or nonmember. The Y fitness staff was expecting 30 or 40 participants but had 93 people sign up for the program, says Crystal Burton, assistant fitness coordinator for the Stillwater Family Y. All nonmembers, who make up about half of the contest participants, received a free one-month pass to the Y. Many of those nonmembers have since signed up for a full-year membership, she says.

“The big thing is getting them in here and getting them started and showing them how they can benefit from it,” Burton says. “The one-month free membership really helped. Many of them are deconditioned.”

When the contest ends on May 1, the top three teams or individuals with the largest percentage of weight loss will win up to $100 in gift certificates. Competition and prizes give participants extra motivation to work out harder and reach their goals, Burton says.

Wolff says that he sees the same sort of competitive atmosphere in Shape Up Omaha that he felt on the show.

“Attitude is contagious. People think, ‘If they can do it. I can do it,’” he says. “So if someone is on the treadmill at a three percent incline, then the guy next to him will bump his up to six percent. Competition has an effect on the whole gym. People have that little competitive edge and step it up.”

Team Effort

Despite the TV show's competitive nature, not all fitness centers are focusing on competition in their weight-loss contests. Instead, some facilities are favoring community over competition to encourage more people to participate.

Staff members at the Charles King Gym on Naval Base Guam run the six-week Got Excuses fitness program quarterly. The program touches on nutrition, fitness and emotional triggers for unhealthy behaviors, says Token Barnthouse, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR), Guam Fitness, Sports and Deployed Forces support director.

To cover costs, fees for the program are $25 per participant. Each program brings in about 15 to 17 participants, and 90 percent of each group successfully loses weight, says Sheila Litty, MWR Guam fitness coordinator.

“Competition is healthy and fun, but I always make it an option because it scares some away,” Litty says. “The weekly weigh-ins hold each patron accountable for their accomplishments from week to week, but it can be very intimidating for some to step on a scale in front of others.”

Because each facility is different, club management should feel free to tailor their contest to participants, operators say. For example, although Burton at the Stillwater Family Y wanted to hold physical challenges just like the TV show does, it just wasn't feasible because the contest's participants had a wide range of ages and abilities.

“We have people in their 80s, and the best exercise for them is water group exercise class,” Burton explains. “They couldn't flip a tire over 100 times, so we make it about their goal weight.”

Also, by tailoring contests to their members' needs, clubs can help members create relationships and foster a sense of community at a facility, which is priceless when it comes to retention and keeping your members happy and engaged. To help deepen the social element of the contest, Burton plans on setting aside time for the contestants to discuss what is and is not working for them in their weight-loss efforts during the Stillwater Family Y's next competition.

Weighing In

Clubs' success with these contests has not come without hard work and planning. 24 Hour Fitness is always working ahead on marketing tie-ins for the next season of the TV show. For Shape Up Omaha, Wolff and Hildreth work with the Y of Greater Omaha to teach boot camps, create nutrition and fitness plans, run weigh-ins and develop challenges for the contest. Every one of the 92 participants in the program is also paired with a trainer from the Y.

“The smallest details are probably the most important,” Wolff says. “Everything has to be drawn out with all of the details of the competition.”

Although the Stillwater Family Y put together its weight-loss contest quickly, four staff members worked on the program, meeting often and taking care of responsibilities individually.

Besides working out the contest details (for more tips on how to create a weight-loss competition, see the sidebar on page 48), many clubs spend considerable time marketing the contest. The Stillwater Y put up fliers around town, and a local newspaper did an article on the competition.

The 44,000-square-foot Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, CA, hit the marketing jackpot for its Big Booty Weight-Loss Challenge. The club's management worked with a local country radio station to help with the contest, which pitted two teams of six, each led by a morning show deejay, against each other. One team worked out at the Airport Health Club, and the other worked out at another Santa Rosa, CA, fitness facility. The Airport Health Club gave its team a free three-month membership, did fitness assessments for them and, through a donation from a manufacturer, gave each of them a heart-rate monitor watch.

The deejays talked about their weight-loss issues and progress on their morning radio show every day, and hundreds applied to be on their teams, says Paula Potter, club manager.

“We've had some excitement, and more people come into the club because of the contest, especially during the lead-up to the contest,” she says. “Everyone wanted a free three-month membership. There was a lot of hype from that point.”

Because of the success of the contest, Potter plans on creating an in-house weight-loss challenge of some sort in the future.

Although none of the people at the facilities interviewed had tracked the retention rate of members who had participated in these competitions, they all plan to continue or expand their contests. Management at the Stillwater Family Y plans to start a contest every January to coincide with New Year's resolutions, and Wolff and Hildreth want to bring their program to other cities. The couple also created their own company, Reality Wellness Inc., which offers online training, life-management coaching, fitness boot camps and workplace wellness initiatives.

With all the success fitness facilities are having with these contests, do “The Biggest Loser” executives mind that their show's concept is being copied? No, Koops says. They're actually flattered.

“Our partnership with 24 Hour Fitness and other fitness clubs embracing the show is positive for everyone,” he says. “We hope clubs continue to do so, and we hope that the show can continue to promote the fitness industry by promoting health and fitness.”

14 Tips for Creating a Weight-Loss Competition

  1. Get doctor approval

    Many participants may have underlying medical conditions or chronic disease. As with any personal training client, get a physician's OK to work with them.

  2. Obtain legible contact information

    Make sure you have addresses, phone numbers, cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses for all participants so that you can communicate with them before, during and after the competition.

  3. Get real

    Staff members should work with participants to ensure that they have reasonable expectations when it comes to weight loss. Losing up to 20 pounds a week — something that contestants on the TV show do frequently — is an unrealistic and even unhealthy goal for those outside of “The Biggest Loser” set.

  4. Set rules

    Some competitive participants may try using laxatives, weight-loss supplements or dehydration to lose extra pounds for weigh-ins. At the beginning of the contest, give contestants a list of rules and have a dietitian educate them on the negative effects of these supplements and practices.

  5. Have a back-up plan

    Make sure that more than one person knows how to weigh contestants, calculate percentage of body weight lost, teach boot camps, etc. This way, if someone is out, the contest can continue with minimal problems.

  6. Don't just focus on fitness

    Workouts are only part of the weight-loss equation. Be sure to give participants general information on healthy eating. Scheduling time for participants to meet with a registered dietitian as a group or one-on-one is even better, club managers say.

  7. Diversify participants' workouts

    Hire motivational trainers who are experienced and can make workouts fun and different for each participant. Take advantage of all of your facility's amenities, such as pools and climbing walls, and don't be afraid to take workouts outside.

  8. Respect participants' privacy

    Many participants will be uncomfortable being weighed in front of others. Consider weighing all contestants privately or give them the option of being weighed in a separate, private room. When it comes to posting results, consider listing only participants' percentage of weight lost each week, instead of making actual weights public.

  9. Use the same scale

    Scales can vary widely, so for consistency from weigh-in to weigh-in and to ensure fairness, use one scale that can weigh up to 500 pounds. If testing body fat percentage, use the same device or have the same person measure with calipers.

  10. Make it social

    Plan non-workout-related events to help foster a community. Encourage local businesses to donate healthy foods or services, such as a massage, so that participants can bond over more than just which piece of cardio equipment they like best.

  11. Tailor challenges

    Challenges are not one-size-fits-all. When designing physical ones, take into account members' ages and abilities. If participants are extremely varied, design challenges that test fitness or nutritional knowledge rather than physical strength or cardiovascular endurance.

  12. Test fitness gains halfway through

    This can show participants how much they've improved their health and help motivate them to the end of the competition.

  13. Don't forget to help them maintain

    Consider creating a similar style contest that encourages participants to maintain the weight they've lost. At the least, encourage them to consider personal training or, if it's a nonmember, to consider joining your facility so that they can continue their workouts.

  14. Track participants after the contest

    To see how effective contests are in helping to retain members, track how long former contest participants stay with the club and how often they use the club to see if the contests are worthwhile long term.