Stephens College Says It Will Meet Weight-Loss Challenge and Earn $1-Million

January 02, 2011

After four months of exercise classes and seminars on eating right, Stephens College appears ready to start the new year at least 300 pounds lighter and $1-million richer.

The healthy activities, lost pounds, and financial payout are the result of a fund-raising challenge posed last year by one of the Missouri college's alumnae, a woman in her 80s who is committed to fitness and eating well. If Stephens staff and faculty members lost a collective 250 pounds by January 1, the anonymous donor pledged to give the women's college $1-million. And if Dianne M. Lynch, Stephens's president, lost 25 pounds, the donor would add $100,000 to the gift.

The final weigh-ins will happen in early January, when staff and faculty members return to the campus after winter break, but an early tally indicated that Stephens will exceed the donor's requirement. According to Chris Smith, director of marketing and public relations at the college, of the 107 employees who signed up for the challenge, those who weighed in right before Christmas had lost a total of 302 pounds. More are expected to weigh in after the break.

Ms. Lynch, who was not given a specific deadline by which she needed to lose 25 pounds, told the Columbia Daily Tribune, a local newspaper, that she was more than halfway to the goal, with about 10 pounds left to go.

When the gift was announced last summer, the donor's conditional offer attracted criticism. Some online commenters said awarding money based on numbers on a scale was an inappropriate measure of health, especially for a women's college. Others supported the donor's unusual challenge, arguing that giving people an incentive to lose weight was not a bad thing, given how widespread obesity is in the United States.

During the fall, the college and Ms. Lynch distanced themselves from the weight discussion, focusing the college's efforts and publicity about the donor's challenge on making healthy choices rather than dropping pounds or dress sizes. "It's not about being skinny," Ms. Lynch said at a September kickoff event. "It isn't about all of us wasting away. It's about the idea that we have adopted a different kind of lifestyle."

Ms. Lynch did not return requests for comment from The Chronicle.

Yoga, Pilates, and a Blog

To help employees meet the goal, Stephens offered free yoga, Pilates, and other exercise classes during lunchtime and after work, and started a blog with low-fat, nutritious suitable recipes and health tips. Employees could take up to an hour of paid time to exercise, and the college sponsored lunchtime health seminars, said Brenda K. McSherry, director of health services. Employees could weigh in every week (about half of those participated chose to do so), or wait until the end of the challenge.

Rikki Takeyama, a graduate assistant in the philanthropy office who begins work in the admissions department this month, helped run the blog and plan exercise classes. She understands why the conditions of the gift could have been negatively perceived, but says that weight was just the basic measurement with which to evaluate progress, not the focus of the campuswide effort.

"President Lynch was encouraging lifestyle changes, not saying, 'You have to lose weight,'" she said.

While Ms. Takeyama says she wasn't able to attend many of the exercise classes, she paid more attention to portion size and started walking more, even as temperatures in central Missouri dropped.

At the December weigh-in, Ms. Takeyama learned she had lost two pounds. Because she was more interested in making some lifestyle changes than in losing weight, she is happy with the result and anticipates starting a running program in the new year. "Even though I only lost two pounds, I contributed to the success of the campaign," she said.

The college has not said if the donor will attend any final weigh-ins or celebrations for the challenge, but she has been following the program's progress through the college's president. Ms. McSherry said the alumna is, according to Ms. Lynch, "thrilled about the impact her offer has had on the campus and community."