BALTIMORE - Stacey Barich changed her mind about having a tummy tuck when her mother contracted a serious infection after a hospital stay. That's when she knew she had to find another way to drop her weight.
"I couldn't even do a sit-up when I got here, but this was a no-brainer for me," Barich said.
The no-brainer was a 12-week weight-loss contest offered by her employer, Agora Inc., a newsletter publishing company based in Baltimore. The reward: A $1,000 prize for the top "losers" in male, female and team categories.
Barich, a corporate communications manager, has lost 15 pounds - she'd rather not say how much she weighs - by working hard in the small, well-kept gym in Agora's basement.
"It's funny because people that know me are like, 'You work out?' But I enjoy coming here," Barich said.
By the time the contest ended Friday, 84 employees had shed nearly 1,000 pounds, with two losing over 40 pounds.
Fitness programs and weight-loss competitions such as Agora's, which was inspired by the NBC show "The Biggest Loser," are catching on in offices, where workers are concerned about their waistlines and employers about health care costs. The goals are to improve employee health, increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and lower costs.
"The concept is becoming more popular as workplaces realized the cost of an obese work force," said Marci Campbell, an expert on work programs and an associate professor in the nutrition department at the University of Northern Carolina.
Agora's employees work in several Victorian mansions, lit by chandeliers, in the heart of Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. Babies sleep in cradles in their mothers' offices. And CEO Myles Norin doesn't sweat it if they work out during the day - exercise time is not counted against employees' schedules.
"Agora is not your typical workplace," explains Norin, dressed for work in a casual shirt and sandals.
The company spent $90,000 for the 12-week program, which was extended for another 12 weeks. Employees have the option of working with personal trainers during classes at the company's gym or having unlimited access to a local gym. The Agora gym has free weights, cardio machines and weightlifting equipment in an exposed-brick decor.
Employee Paul Amos said he's working out to lose weight and prevent the heart disease that runs in his family.
"I'm now getting back into clothes that I couldn't fit in for a long time," said Amos, who lost 32 pounds.
Of the company's more than 400 employees, 115 signed up for the exercise program and 84 also enrolled in the contest.
For Jonathan Ramos, it meant trading his daily snack cake for kickboxing class. He dropped 33 pounds.
"I haven't had one since I started the program, but I still crave them," he said.