You’ve probably heard of “The Biggest Loser”-one of the most popular reality shows on TV. But did you know a high school in California is successfully utilizing its key concept to motivate kids to lose weight?

At Serrano High School (and other secondary and elementary schools) in Phelan, CA, edu­cators, in concert with Heritage Victor Valley Medical Group (HVVMG), have implemented a program called In It to Thin It, which challenges children considered obese to be the “biggest losers”—in terms of dropping pounds-during the school year as a way to get in shape and be better fit to learn in the classroom. 

And, yes, as with the TV show, there’s a financial incentive for losing those pounds. “Kids who lose weight are rewarded financially,” says George Mangum, director of fitness at HVVMG. “There is a midway winner in January, and, at the end of March, an overall grand prize boy and girl winner each receives $1,000, plus a scholarship awarded by our local junior college,” he explains. 

The kids in the In It to Thin It initiative participate in an after-school fitness program, which is implemented and funded by HVVMG. Before and after each school year, the medical center administers, at its own expense, a complete physical with appropriate lab tests. In some cases, these physical exams have uncovered life-threatening abnormalities and perhaps saved several lives, Mangum says.

The program, which began three years ago, was launched after Mangum began a “boot camp” fitness program for local educators, which he called “educational reform in 60 minutes.” 

“As a former PE teacher, I realized the need for educators to stay fit,” he explains. Mangum later met Merlin Aalborg, HVVMG’s COO, who had started In It to Thin It in conjunction with a program called It’s a Gas to Go to Class, sponsored by Victorville Motors, which rewarded students who achieved perfect attendance with an opportunity to win a free car at an end-of-year event.

Summer Boot Camp 

Now, for the first time, Mangum is running a Summer Boot Camp, which takes place at the fitness room in HVVMG’s offices. At press time, 15 students were participating in the new program, which was advertised throughout the school districts through both traditional means and via social media. “The summer session emphasizes participation rather than weight loss,” adds Mangum. Each student who attends 20 sessions in an eight-week period can enter a drawing for a $100 gift certificate to Dick’s Sporting Goods. 

Group swimming in laned pool

Seventy-five students have completed the full In It to Thin It program since its inception, with “some amazing results,” including several students who lost more than 20 pounds each in a single year, Mangum says. The in-school program operates in a similar way to a sports team, where grades, attendance, and behavior are closely monitored along with physical fitness, so not everyone finishes the entire program. In 2015–16, Mangum hopes to improve the program and increase participation and completion rates with even more dramatic results.

Advice to Principals

Here’s his advice to principals who want to initiate a similar program at their schools: “Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead.” That’s important for organizing partnerships with local fitness centers and for promoting the program, he explains. 

The program is a special cause for Mangum. “I would have been a candidate for In It to Thin It when I was in high school, so I really understand what these kids are going through. This is so important, because you want to reach these kids in secondary school—or before—rather than have to rescue them at 21,” he says.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of  Principal Leadership.