Bright Idea: Healthy Competition Helps Youth Lose Weight, Gain Confidence

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Photograph of a young woman holding a bathroom scale.

As a case manager at Adams House, a transitional living program for older adolescent boys in Gastonia, N.C., Ed Smith is always looking for ways to keep residents active. This year, that quest led him to organize a weight-loss competition modeled after “The Biggest Loser,” the reality TV show in which overweight people diet and train hard to lose weight.

Adams House contestants weighed in each Saturday for two months. They watched what they ate and made time for exercise. The result: Not only better physical health but mental health too, according to Smith, who saw self-esteem and confidence grow.

“They were competing against each other, but more importantly, it was an individual challenge,” he said. “It gave the guys a goal, something to complete.”

While the young men didn’t exactly transform their appearance the way contestants do on the show, all the residents lost weight. The big winner lost 17 pounds, and gained a bright, new pair of sneakers.

Want to help youth in your program shed pounds? Here are some tips for starting a weight-loss competition:

  • When you approach people with the idea, focus on the game aspect of the competition, Smith says, not the need to lose weight or even what the winner might collect. “A contest provides some structure in a fun way,” says Brenda Hennighan, transitional living program coordinator at With Friends, the youth-serving organization that runs Adams House. “There are rules, but the contest gives young people the motivation to do what they need to do and focus on a goal. And most young people enjoy being challenged.”
  • Enlist a nutritionist or weight loss coach to help youth make healthier choices when it comes to food and exercise. Ask someone to volunteer his or her time to do a presentation to the group at the start of the competition and then meet once with each resident to talk about personal goals.
  • Choose a starting date when everyone gets weighed. Record the numbers and post them in a public space or have a responsible person hold onto them. 
  • Choose an end date and make youth aware of it from the start. People can get more motivated to achieve a goal if they can see the finish line. Two to three months is a good average time for people to start losing weight.
  • Don’t take the contest too seriously. Make it a friendly competition where everyone is encouraged to support each other to achieve a shared goal.

If losing weight is not an issue at your program, consider creating a contest around something else. “You can make a contest out of anything,” Hennighan says, “whether it’s singing or dancing, losing weight or quitting smoking.” She suggests staff—and youth too—get together and brainstorm ideas about what the youth need, what they like to do and what motivates them. The goal, she says, is “to keep young people on track and in a positive direction.”

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