Weight-loss challenges weigh in strong

All across the country, the start of the New Year means the start of resolution-sparked diets and renewed commitments to fitness. From Charlotte, N.C., to a tiny mountain town in Northern California, from Wal-Marts nationwide to Bally Total Fitness and the Discovery Channel Store, throngs of people flocked to step on scales and sign up as "out of shape" -- all with the ever hopeful wish to lose the excess and get fit too.
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All across the country, the start of the New Year means the start of resolution-sparked diets and renewed commitments to fitness. From Charlotte, N.C., to a tiny mountain town in Northern California, from Wal-Marts nationwide to Bally Total Fitness and the Discovery Channel Store, throngs of people flocked to step on scales and sign up as "out of shape" -- all with the ever hopeful wish to lose the excess and get fit too.

Sure, New Year's resolution fitness programs aren't new. But making them public seems to be the trend. If signing up and weighing-in publicly will make someone stick to the shtick, we're all for it.

Think we're just writing about weight loss? Oh so wrong. We're writing about promotional and marketing opportunities that some health clubs, stores and companies have already clued into -- ones that are strongly fueled not only by America's growing obesity problem but also by that very public's growing frustration with its problem. Read on to see who's involved:

National Body Challenge

Now in its third series, the Discovery Health Channel's National Body Challenge -- sponsored in part by Bally Total Fitness -- is probably the King Kong of community weight-loss events. Just in case you've been on Mars, we'll sum up: The Body Challenge is a reality-type TV show that follows six participants for several weeks as they try to meet weight and fitness goals. But it's now grown to include a nationwide program where anybody can sign up and play along, so to speak, from his or her own home.

On Jan. 10, the public was invited to show up at select Discovery Channel stores and Bally Total Fitness locations nationwide to sign up and weigh in en masse. Curious what would happen, SNEWS popped in on the Discovery store at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumberg, Ill. Ohmigawd, it was a mob scene. The challenge obviously hit a nerve. Hopeful participants started lining up outside the store (are you sitting down?) before 6 a.m. with sleeping bags, Manager Ryan Murphy told us, although the store didn't open until 10 a.m. Although folks were eagerly weighing in and signing up, the big carrot seemed to be the "Get Fit Kit," which included a free three-month trial membership at Bally Total Fitness (the most sought-after component, we heard), as well as a hat, tape measure, store coupons and fitness information. In the middle of the afternoon when we popped in there were at least 100 people still waiting in line both inside and outside, with five security guards pacing around the mayhem. The phones had been ringing off the hook all day, Murphy said, and the 2,000 Bally passes the store had been allotted were long gone. Anyone could sign up online too (www.discovery.com/health) but then you didn't get the kit or the Bally pass. All who signed up got fitness, body fat and nutrition information.

The final weigh (is that a weigh OUT?) will be April 3. Following the challenge, the Discovery Health Channel will air a six-part TV show that showcases six contestants as they go through the National Body Challenge. Footage from the national event will also be included in the TV series.

Wal-Mart and the Slim-Fast Challenge

Also on Jan. 10 were weigh-ins at Wal-Mart stores nationwide as part of another national weight-loss challenge and educational program co-sponsored by Slim-Fast.

This challenge is said to offer Wal-Mart and Sam's Club shoppers access to in-store representatives who can give personalized attention including a body mass index assessment, as well as provide information on (of course) Slim-Fast. We didn't get to this one, but we heard shoppers who signed up received a "before" picture to take with them so they could track their progress. They also were instructed to get free online support and diet, nutrition and fitness information at www.slimfast-challenge.com, as well as the opportunity to sign up for an online buddy for motivation.

The gimmes here were product and a pedometer. Not sure if "after" pictures are planned.

Community Challenges

The push to get involved with others who are losing weight doesn't stop with national promotions. Nor do the opportunities for companies. In tiny Nevada City, Calif., an historic Gold Rush town in the Northern California Sierra, a SRO crowd of more than 700 packed the town's high school theater, all with the hope of weighing in and signing up as a part of teams for the area's first such event. Here it was called the Community Meltdown. So packed was the meeting, that organizers called a second introductory meeting and weigh-in for, yes, Saturday, Jan. 10.

The Meltdown there was modeled after a similar event in Garden City, Kan., that began several years ago called the Corporate Meltdown. In the Nevada City area, however, local health clubs are jumping on the bandwagon by offering participants free use of the clubs during the two-month program.

We also know of another fitness challenge in Charlotte, N.C. (www.fitcitychallenge.org), that was so successful in its first year last year that the city moved from being No. 10 on the annual Men's Fitness "fattest city" list in 2003 to No. 22 on the 2004 "fittest city" list.

SNEWS View: These obviously aren't the only such events, but examples of what can be done, big and small. They are also an example of how those involved with the fitness, sports and outdoor industries can get involved on many levels. All things are possible: from a personal companywide "meltdown" to supporting a local city effort to manufacturers encouraging and helping customers (retailers and clubs) to get involved in their own towns. Bally obviously is a big winner in its national involvement with Discovery (although if we were paid members of Bally, we suppose we wouldn't take kindly to being overrun by freebie members for 12 weeks). Nevertheless, we hope that all participants across the country will be winners and will then help fuel the success of others. Perhaps a "reality" aspect to such programs that includes team efforts and even peer pressure is what this country needs to get healthy and fit.

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