Registered Nurse Mark Vaccarino (right) is measured by RN Lisa Schroder at the UCLA Medical Center's Biggest Loser program for employees last Friday. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MID-CITY — It’s one of the most common excuses for why people don’t exercise: “I just don’t have the time.”

For many of the nurses at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, that excuse is legitimate. Working 12-hour shifts leaves little time for working out, especially after spending nearly all that time on two feet instead of planted in a cushy office chair.

But as health care professionals, it is imperative that nurses lead by example, which is why nursing supervisor Mark Vaccarino decided to enroll in the hospital’s weight-loss challenge where employees win cash for shedding the most pounds and inches.

“I think we are role models,” Vaccarino said last Friday as he snacked on an apple before his final weigh-in. “I see some nurses who smoke or do other bad things to themselves. We really should be role models for our patients and be knowledgeable about fitness. But it is hard. It’s tough to work a 12-hour shift and then go to the gym.”

With the weight-loss challenge, nurses and other hospital staff can take an hour out of their work day to learn about nutrition and share stories with colleagues, who act as a support network to help overcome those obstacles that keep people from reaching their ideal weight.

The 12-week program, which focuses on education, was created at the hospital in February by Fiona Angus, the interim director of Women’s and Children’s Services at Santa Monica-UCLA. Angus, who has held three sessions of the program, wanted to get co-workers thinking about their health after she started to notice those she hired several years ago had started to put on pounds. With the number of obese adults and children in America rising to alarming levels, Angus knew she had to do something locally.

“I think that this is an important social awareness and community program,” Angus said.

That’s why she plans to take the program outside of the hospital and into the community, hosting a Monday evening class where residents and employees of local businesses can participate, learning about everything from protein, water and metabolism to good fats, fiber, digestive health and heart health.

“It’s only for an hour per week,” Angus said, encouraging people to sign up.

And then there’s the money.

Those participating in the weight loss challenge pay a $39.99 entry fee, with $10 going to the nonprofit Fit Kids Foundation for the Prevention of Childhood Obesity, which is committed to combating the rise in childhood obesity by supporting community-based programs promoting healthy eating and physical activity.

The rest of the cash is paid to the first, second and third place finishers at the end of the program. Those who fail to attend a class must pay $5 for each class missed, and those who gain weight must chip in a $1 per pound. Angus said one class raised the pot to $945. The biggest loser gets 50 percent of the pot, while the second gets 30 percent and the third wins 20 percent. There are also prizes for the biggest loser of the week and for the person who loses the most inches.

“The money definitely helps get people here,” Angus said. “But a lot of them have been yo-yo dieters and they are just looking for something that is going to more of a lifestyle change, a program that they can incorporate into their daily routine so they don’t look at it as just another diet. It’s a life choice.”

Maureen Garcia-Brackett is one of those who have changed their daily routines because of the program. A former Weight Watchers member, Garcia-Brackett, who works as an administrative assistance at the hospital, decided to try the 12-week challenge because she wanted to learn more about how food interacts with her body. Whereas Weight Watchers is all about points, Angus’ program brings education into the mix.

“That is what helps you make better choices throughout the week,” said Garcia-Brackett, who has shed three dress sizes since starting the program. “You become more aware of what you are eating. And then there’s the accountability. Coming in every week and weighing yourself, it keeps your mind on what you are trying to achieve.”

While the employees at UCLA pay their own way and in the end contribute to the big payout, there are companies that are using financial incentives to get workers to live healthier lifestyles. Some have offered to pay employees hundreds of dollars a year to agree to routine medical assessments and free health and nutrition coaching. Others have offered cruises to Jamaica for those who reach certain weight loss or body fat reduction goals.

The programs are a sign of the times. It is estimated that 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting them at greater risk for serious ailments including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and certain forms of cancer. Obesity cost American companies $56 billion in 2000 alone, the DCD estimates, and that burden is continuing to rise, experts say, as a larger chunk of Generations X and Y is weighing in heavy.

Analysts say companies are smart to dangle some kind of economic incentive to get workers motivated to lose weight. Money is a great motivator, and it’s a drop in the bucket compared with what they will wind up paying in the long run.

“The younger work force is getting fatter faster than the older work force,” Thomas B. Gilliam, a corporate health consultant who co-authored the book “Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy: Achieving a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time,” told MSN.com “Instead of having to pay for obesity-related diseases from age 50 to 65, they will now pay from 25 to 65.”

UCLA-Santa Monica employee Marilyn Maier is one who believes employers should do more to encourage their employees to stay in shape.

“When I go home from work, I don’t go out again,” she said. “You’re tired. You just want to make something to eat and get ready for the next day. So this [program] is something that helps motivate me and keeps me on track. It’s not so much the money. It’s about trying to better myself.”

Those interested in learning more about the weight-loss challenge at Santa Monica-UCLA can contact Angus at (310) 562-8157.

“I think that being healthy is such an important goal to have, not just for nurses,” Angus said, “but for everybody.”

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