Krystle Singletary, 28, front, joins other employees taking a yoga class during their lunch hour at the Centro advertising agency in Chicago.

Krystle Singletary, 28, front, joins other employees taking a yoga class during their lunch hour at the Centro advertising agency in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

At Alper Services, a Chicago insurance brokerage firm, their 48 employees are gearing up for their spring "Walk the Talk" challenge.

The company's "Biggest Loser" contest ran from Oct. 31 through Jan. 31, timed to help people survive the holidays without the gift of weight gain. About half took part, according to Cindi Elstien, director of people and office operations. Cash incentives and extra vacation days for winners were a big draw.

In Alper's "Walk the Talk" competition, all employees wear company-provided pedometers to track their steps. Competition was fierce last year, said Mary Arola, of Winfield, who placed fourth by logging over one million steps between Aug. 1 and Sept. 23.

Employees also benefit from free flu shots, adult CPR training, fresh fruit in the cafeteria, nutritionist talks, and reduced health-care premiums for those who have a biometric screening.

Arola said the competition encouraged her to lengthen her dog walks, and to skip the bus and walk the 1.25 miles from Ogilvie train station to work, and back again in the evening.

"When you're going home at the end of the day you just want to get there the quickest way possible, but this gave me a kick start and I've kept doing it most of the time," she said. "I wasn't really in it to win it, but it becomes fun when everybody's checking the numbers each week. It motivates you."

Creating that company momentum is important, said Shawn Riegsecker, founder and CEO of Centro, the 2012 winner of the Illinois Healthiest Employers Award in the 100-499 employees category. Centro also recently won Chicago's Best Places to Work award for 2013 from Crain's Chicago Business.

Centro hosted its third annual employee "Wellnesspalooza" last fall, an office event where 75 percent of employees plus 15 spouses or partners opted for free on-site health screenings, healthy eating and drinking seminars, and more, and in return received a 20 percent discount on this year's insurance premium.

"We're a young workforce (median age 28). Lots of times young people think they are invincible," said Riegsecker. "This is a way for them to pay attention. To make sure all of their health ranges are in line."

Roughly 20 to 25 employees take part in twice-weekly yoga classes at the office, a "graze bar" provides healthy snack options such as dried fruit and yogurt, and Riegsecker said he tries to personally set a good example for his employees.

"I'm probably a little bit extreme, actually," he said.

"When it comes to the health of our employees, and I mean the mental, physical and emotional state, I have a belief that companies should exist to do more than make money," he said. "Philosophically, they also exist to create happiness in their employees and the people their employees touch."

When HealthTrack Sports and Wellness in Glen Ellyn first offered clients and staff a "Biggest Loser" contest, they called it the "Biggest Cruiser" contest, rewarding the winner with a cruise voucher. Now the cruise is gone and the competition has been renamed "Mission SlimPossible," said fitness director Deanna Castro.

The current prize: Six months of free dues for the entire family.

HealthTrack's January contest included 63 participants boasting a group loss of 707 pounds.

"The average loss is 10 to 12 pounds in six weeks" she said. "It's a jump-start to feeling better.

"We have found that a key is to have people in teams working toward a goal. The success rate for people to stick it out the full six weeks dramatically increases with teams as compared to individuals," Castro said. "That's part of the appeal of 'Biggest Loser' contests. It's about doing it yourself, but also doing it together."