IT staffers shed 1,500 pounds

With his 50th birthday looming at the end of July in 2010, Frederick Curiel knew he had to lose weight. But as with many IT professionals, the demands of his job had put diet and exercise on the back burner.

"My lab [results] were 'frightening,' according to my doctor," recalls Curiel, a computer specialist in the Pleasanton, Calif., office of health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente. "She wanted me to go on medications." Curiel preferred to try diet and exercise, but he says, "I tried a bunch of things and had lost some weight, but I reached a plateau."

Fortunately for Curiel, he was about to get a little help from his IT co-workers.

At about the same time that Curiel needed a nudge, Philip Fasano, executive vice president and CIO of Kaiser Permanente, was looking for a little motivation of his own. Coming off an ankle injury, Fasano needed incentive to get back in shape.

Kaiser Permanente had already begun a companywide eight-week physical activity program and cross-country virtual journey called "Thrive Across America," which ran from May to June 2010. Employees and teams were encouraged to track their physical activity via a Web portal. Minutes of exercise were converted into miles on a cross-country journey.

But Fasano decided to take the program a step further by going public on the company's IdeaBook internal social network with his current weight and his goal of losing at least five pounds. He launched the "5x500 CIO Challenge" and invited the rest of the IT staff to join him in his quest.

Fasano posted weekly blogs to update his progress and receive feedback. Soon, other participants began blogging questions, celebrating their own weight-loss milestones and posting notes of encouragement. The CIO Challenge became one of the most active groups on IdeaBook. By the end of the seven-week program, 400 IT employees collectively lost some 1,500 pounds. Curiel broke through his weight-loss slump, eventually dropping a total of 50 pounds.

What's more, Fasano quickly learned that the challenge's benefits to the IT department outweighed the pounds lost.

"It clearly became an opportunity for us to engage in something in common regardless of place in the IT organization," Fasano says. "It also created a community of interest where we had a kinship and a partnership."

Moreover, people started asking Fasano how his ankle was recovering. "It allowed me to communicate directly with our IT employees in a way that I hadn't before -- in such a direct manner," he says.

Following the success of the first program, Kaiser Permanente last fall launched a 10-week program with a focus on walking. And Fasano once again put out a call to his team to join him in a special IT challenge. This time, the goal was for each participant to walk 10 miles per week, and 341 IT staffers signed on for the challenge. At the close of the program, the team had collectively covered some 27,000 miles; that's a greater distance than the circumference of the Earth at the equator 24,901.5 miles.

Healthy Dividends

For Betty Pizarro, lead administrative assistant at Kaiser Permanente's innovation and technology department in Oakland, Calif., the original weight-loss challenge sparked new office friendships and a healthier lifestyle.

She was impressed that Fasano publicly disclosed his height and weight, and the amount of weight he needed to lose. "I thought, if this man can do this, I can do this. So I took on the challenge," Pizarro recalls.

She found a walking buddy in the IT department, and they began walking outside during their lunch break. "It's hard to lose weight and be healthy by yourself, so I attached myself to positive people," she says. Pizarro credits her buddy for "pulling me out of my cube" on days when she didn't want to leave her desk. Every other week, Pizarro walked with her work mentor in the IT department.

Pizarro lost over 25 pounds. "I was on two blood pressure medications. I'm now on one, and I am as cute as hell!" she says with a laugh.

Though Pizarro was initially reluctant to share her thoughts, occasionally she mustered the courage to put a note on her blog when she lost five pounds or went down a dress size. "I did it when I felt the need to acknowledge to myself that I hit this mark," she says.

Curiel used the company's online total health assessment tool to set goals and timelines to help him stay on track, in addition to working out every day at the gym. "I modified my diet and started consuming more fruits and vegetables. At my desk, I have fruit, vegetables and nuts. I stopped going out to lunch and started eating what I brought in," Curiel says.

He's been able to keep the weight off, thanks in part to the departmentwide lifestyle change. "Now I have co-workers who talk about health and fitness just as office chat," he explains.

Tony Pannone, a senior analyst in production services, lost 40 pounds with help from the CIO Challenge. He and his colleagues on the evening shift still support one another's healthy habits. "Six of us on second shift walk every workday at 8:30 p.m. We walk up six flights of stairs to the top of the parking garage and watch the sun set off the mountains," Pannone says. "Also, we all bring healthy snacks -- pita chips, hummus and veggies. The whole shift participates."

Not everyone in the IT department needed to lose weight -- and some who may have needed to shed a few pounds declined to participate. "When you lose weight, you start losing some of your fat friends. So I reached out to people who think healthy. People who were continuing in their old habits would try to offer me an extra piece of cookie," Pizarro says.

But many IT workers took the opportunity to change their sedentary habits. Lydia Keough, an IT business segment partner in Kaiser Permanente's Denver office, felt that she could be in better shape. "I hadn't been working out like I normally do -- I had gotten away from it, and I missed it," she says, adding that she didn't think she had enough time to fit exercise back into her routine.

"When the challenge came up, I saw other people doing it and I [realized], gosh, everyone else is out of time, too!" she recalls. "It just alerted me that maybe I wasn't really using all the time I had in the best way to be in shape." She re-evaluated her daily schedule and decided that she could get up an hour earlier to get on the treadmill, take that walk in the evening, or watch the nightly news while walking on the treadmill after dinner "instead of sitting for another 40 minutes." She posted her tips on the internal blog, as well. Today, Keough is in better shape and eight pounds lighter.

At work, "we have a treadmill on the floor above us. When you're sitting for an hour or more, you can get on the treadmill for five minutes and then come back and work," she says. "With exercise, you feel more focused."

The challenge reminded Keough of how good she feels when she exercises regularly and of how much energy that brings her. "I realized that you have control to fit this into your life. That was my ah-ha moment." u

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact herat stcollett@aol.com .

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