Worth their weight in gold

The Beit Shemesh ‘Biggest Loser’ competition, a.k.a. ‘Olim Yordim,’ has led to a 400-kilo decline in the city’s Anglos since April ’09.

Olim Yordim 311 (photo credit: Sara K. Eisen)
Olim Yordim 311
(photo credit: Sara K. Eisen)
Round 4 has begun with the onset of October, not a moment too soon after the nationwide holiday foodapalooza that was September, and at least the atmosphere is light. There is laughter, there are friends and there are spreadsheets.
Of course, there are no refreshments.
All energy is focused on the two scales at the center of Avi and Michal Davidowitz’s living room, in the largely Anglo Nofei Aviv neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. The latest round of the community’s “Biggest Loser” competition – a.k.a. “Olim Yordim,” a riff on the overseas origins of almost all participants – is kicking off by organizer Davidowitz gathering the initial statistics of some 40 contestants.
Like its reality TV inspiration (the Israeli version of The Biggest Loser, Laredet Begadol, launched its new season on 10.10.10 on Channel 10), this is one contest in which player stats should never rise. In fact, contenders have literally put their money where their mouths are: Pay-in follows initial weigh-in as salad follows hunger. If participants earn the maximum five points by losing 10 percent of their current body weight by Pessah, they may not only earn back their “venture,” but come out a bit richer, in addition to thinner. Lose less than 6% (three points), and they are likely to also lose much of the money. “People get to the point, let’s say 20 kilos overweight, where they can’t even start,” says Nicole Broder, a weight loss coach and Wingate Institute-certified fitness instructor who lives in Beit Shemesh alongside many of the contestants. “Maybe that’s the power of this group, where 10% is an acknowledged accomplishment.” The New York Times reported on the grassroots success, mostly in the workplace, of diet betting groups early last year. Interestingly, it seems that while winning money (and certainly the aversion to willfully losing it) serves as the incentive, it is not exactly about the money at all. Commitment toward a goal is made easier when there is something riding on it, like cash; when there is some fun injected, by way of a contest; when there is a supportive community around it, and transparency for the members therein; and when there is semi-public liability, like a contract or agreement to certain rules, to nail down that target. Then there is the matter of structure, and clear, defined, manageable objectives, otherwise known as short-term goals. For the love of the game While these truths work across the board in human behavioral psychology, they may be especially true for people who need to lose a significant amount of weight, since so much of what goes wrong with overeating goes wrong in private, in the dark and without much sense of appreciation for the long-term reality (scale/dress) vs the feels good now (cake!). As such, this type of contest might be just what the doctor ordered for this population. Isaac (Yitz) Corn, a financial services entrepreneur in his mid-40s joining the group for Round 4, put it simply: “Watching your weight is no fun. But what works here is the competition. The fun of the competition – the game – replaces the fun of food.” Ezra Starr was the top male winner in Round 3; he ended the summer 19 kilos lighter than he’d started the spring. Like nearly all of the contestants in this game throughout its 18-month history, Starr is not a stranger to trying to lose weight. “I knew what I needed to do,” says the 33- year-old educator, now a commuting “loser,” having recently moved to Efrat. “It was just a matter of motivation. The money kept me focused. I liked that we could lose weight in whatever way has worked for us in the past... This wasn’t deep or emotional. Just raw competition.” IT’S A MAN-FRIENDLY contest; many male participants say they jumped on this particular framework to lose weight they’d been carrying for years because of the fun factor, because the idea of weighing and measuring food, or talking about their food feelings as in other programs was a no-go, and because they knew that competing against neighbors would keep them on track. Corn is really hoping that his intensely competitive streak can bring him back in time about a year – to when he weighed 20 kilos less. He’d lost the weight before, in 2006, when he went from 110 kilos down to 82 training with the Beit Shemesh Running Club. In 2008 and 2009, an extremely fit Corn completed a three hour, 31 minute Tiberias Marathon. The weight stayed off until his schedule got busier and he started running less. His times got slower, he got discouraged and he started eating. A lot. He went back from fit to fat. “I almost broke the ‘95% of people gain it all back in four years’ statistic,” jokes Corn. It’s a statistic that is no laughing matter to David Spolter, 50, a patent attorney and serial Olim Yordim contestant, who points to the stress of aliya (in 2005) as the source for his most significant weight gain – a sentiment expressed by several other participants. Finally, “disgusted with myself,” Spolter found his way to a running coach and began changing his life habits, cutting down to two meals a day and exercising quite heavily, eventually completing two half marathons and losing more than 20 kilos. He’s been in the contest since its inception (with a break during Round 2 due to a running injury) to keep on losing until he reaches, and sees he can maintain, his goal. It’s a format that appeals to him, since games are his thing (Spolter is a regional Scrabble champ), and a loathing for losing – “shame,” as he puts it – keeps him honest with himself. Percentages of loss and current rankings, although never actual weights, are transparent within the group and are sent around in e-mails to all contestants. “It’s just the right amount public, and just the right amount private,” notes one female contestant, who said she’d opt out if weights were listed. Keeping down with the Joneses This dynamic of accountability to a small group seems ideal for sectors of society, like Anglos, and particularly religious Anglos, that tend to live in close-knit communities. Similar peer-reviewed bet-to-lose groups are cropping up from Ra’anana to Yad Binyamin to Herzliya, in teachers’ lounges, synagogues and hi-tech offices. Chaim Wizman is a big believer in this group psychology dynamic. Wizman is the founder of the Beit Shemesh Running Club and a globally recognized marathon coach (and Spolter’s). He’s seen his running club’s membership rise meteorically over the last seven years; it is hard to walk the streets in this town on either end of the day and not see people of both genders and all ages attacking arduous hills at a competitive pace. One might be tempted to say, in this context, that Beit Shemesh runs well. Wizman, also the owner of Al Derech Burma, the sporting goods store sponsoring the BSBL Olim Yordim competition with prizes for top winners, attributes the running club’s success in getting the unfit fit to the communal inducement factor. “It’s a topic of conversation in shul. There’s a major incentive in shared experience. This is just as true of dieting as it is for exercise.” And while for most of the men it is about the winning and the game, for many of the women it is more about the commitment, the compliments and the community. Laurie Marr Kossowsky, a busy hi-tech professional and mother of four, has been dieting on and off for the better part of 30 years and knows the drill. The top female “loser” from Round 1, Kossowsky successfully completed Round 3 – and is now in again for the fourth. While she acknowledges that she might be the most naturally competitive woman in the group, she says that aside from simply wanting to win, “The ‘fame’ impacted me – the buzz, the comments, the compliments. The peer support system is what this group is... A bunch of people willing to tell me the truth. When I finish this contest, if I stick with it, I will be thinner than I have been in decades.” And sticking with it will require some doing, since the contest spans six months this time. In addition to points assigned for total percentage lost by mid-April, there’s also a separate, accruing cash reward for being lighter at each biweekly weigh-in, and a penalty for being heavier, which means that maxing out at a fast 10% loss early in the game is not only unhealthy, it’s also bad strategy. Master of the game Indeed, the Olim Yordim game and all of its intricate rules were carefully designed to encourage steady, consistent, wellpaced loss, in a peer-driven atmosphere that is at once friendly, somewhat amusing and completely, painstakingly serious. Its mastermind is a 47-year-old software architect at Cisco, Joe Weisblatt, who made aliya with his family of seven from New Jersey in the early ’90s. The group’s heart (and healthy conscience) is his wife, Deborah, a technical writer and community organizer. Inspired by a similar group in Mill Basin (New York City) in which his brother participated, Weisblatt, a game-night enthusiast and formidable opponent in anything you can play around a table, had initially conceived of playing a simple, winner- takes-all wager on weight loss in April ’09. He gathered a few friends who all needed to drop many kilos for health reasons (Weisblatt had a “very small heart attack” a few years back) and made another game of it. “In the first round, it was about beating the other guy. It was a lot of pressure,” recalls Weisblatt, who won, losing 12% of his body weight in eight weeks. Ultimately, however, he realized that winner-takes-all in a short contest discouraged all but the top two or three contestants; it favored the heaviest people, who can take off the first several percent more easily; and it encouraged dangerous behaviors, like sweating out weight on prolonged runs on next to no nutrition, and fraternity antics, like tempting opponents with desserts. Deborah, who would frequently send the group heartening emails and daily wisdoms, encouraged Joe to create something which supported gradual, healthy loss. So Weisblatt capped the percentage, came up with all those rules and began looking for sponsors to further reward top losers, a process still under way. In turn, each round has seen more contestants, including several who keep on keeping on to keep it off – and better, more lasting results. “Repeat contests work!” he wrote on the group’s list server a few months back, pointing out that over the course of Rounds 1 and 2 both he and current organizer Davidowitz had lost 17% of their pre-contest weights. (Round 3 saw each lose an additional 10%.) Both men say they have adopted better life habits as a result of the contest, with Weisblatt admitting that he has cut most carbs and become rather fond of biking, and Davidowitz, 36, mostly giving up his gourmet cooking obsession and swearing by a daily salad for lunch near his hi-tech workplace in Herzliya, day in, day out, for a year – a big part of the strategy that won Round 2 for him. He also runs eight kilometers four times a week, in addition to frequent power walks with wife Michal, who is also in the contest. It is interesting to note that the two most active participants in Olim Yordim have contended along with their spouses, another strong pointer to the importance of support and transparency in this enterprise. Keeping it real As to the long term, Davidowitz plans to keep counting calories forever, saying in his typically direct way that he is “no longer under any illusions.” Starr observes that the contest “forces you to keep an eye on the scale. I didn’t even want to know my weight until after the third weigh-in.” Weisblatt and Davidowitz confirm that many contestants, especially the men, had no relationship with a scale before joining the group. Health ministry-certified Clinical dietician Anna Turetsky, also a resident of Beit Shemesh, who has noted the positive change in some of her neighbors, says that “in general, it is easy to lie to yourself. There is a certain amount of self-deception involved in the first place with gaining so much weight.” That deception is over for Rachelle Lichtenstein, a Ramat Beit Shemesh resident who won Round 3 with a resounding 19% loss over the summer. She plans to remain in the contest until she reaches her ideal weight, in advance of a trip to the US next year. She has already set her sights on returning to the old country thin. Once she’s reached her goal, hopefully by the end of this round, Lichtenstein says her eating and exercising are going to be forever calculated. Turetsky, Broder and Wizman all maintain that as opposed to losing weight, which is largely about steady dieting, keeping the weight off forever requires both continued caloric awareness and an absolute, lifelong dedication to exercise – in equal measure. Says Lichtenstein, “It’s a lot of mental and physical energy. It would have been too hard to start unless I’d get something tangible out of it. And I don’t want to have to do it again.” Like the rest of the contestants who have signed on with sweat, tears and shekels, she is heavily invested in losing – and in playing for keeps.