By Jordy Yager - 03/09/10 11:00 AM EST
Under normal circumstances, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse would be thrilled to come to work to find a five-pound bag of Hershey’s Kisses left on his desk.
But not this month.
Morse and nearly 150 Capitol Police employees are halfway into the department’s annual weight-loss challenge, and the stakes are high: looking trim for the approaching swimsuit season, making good on New Year’s resolutions and, of course, securing bragging rights.
The rules are simple. Teams consist of four people. Each team member weighed in at the beginning of the challenge — Feb. 1 — and will do so again at the end — April 30. The team with the highest overall percentage of lost body weight wins.
But the tactics are complex.
Just ask Sgt. Jason Bell. Last year his team, “3 Guys & A Baby,” recruited a female teammate who gave birth during the competition. She was 20 pounds lighter by the end, and they took second place.
Or ask Laromacine Young, one of the Capitol Police’s administrative assistants. Young has participated in the competition for three straight years and has become known as one of the most benevolent gift-givers in the office. She brings in cakes, doughnuts and other sweets throughout the challenge to tempt the other teams.
“They eat it up, and I’m not a cake-eater, so I’m always winning,” she said during an interview in the Capitol Police headquarters’ fitness center.
The teams go all-out for the challenge, said Christi Trombino-Tonzi, the Capitol Police department’s fitness consultant and physical training instructor.
She oversees the friendly competition and has seen participants lose as much as 40 pounds.
Many teams try to be as heavy as possible at the initial weigh-in so that their final weight will be more stark in comparison.
“People were waiting in line for their initial weigh-in and they were eating sandwiches and drinking a ton of water,” she said. “And each year we have some people who say, ‘When are you starting the challenge again? Because I don’t want to start losing weight until I get weighed in.’ ”
In past years Trombino-Tonzi used different scales to weigh the team members. But before long word began to spread about which scales were lighter and which read heavier. So this year, all of the participants are weighed on the same scale, which sits under lock and key with Trombino-Tonzi in the Capitol Police fitness center so nobody gets any funny ideas about tampering with it when she’s not around.
And while the contest can bring out the most conniving strategies in people, by all accounts it also works wonders for building camaraderie and helping participants make permanent changes toward leading a healthier lifestyle.
“When you give someone a challenge like this and then they lose the weight, they see that they can,” Morse, the police chief, said in an interview in the department’s headquarters. “And then they want it to be a part of their lifestyle.
It typically takes about three months to see major changes in people’s fitness if they’re working out consistently and eating properly, Trombino-Tonzi said. As part of her oversight, she sends out e-mails to the teams every couple of days with exercise tips and dietary advice.
“Even though I’ve always been really health-conscious,” Morse said, “there are things that you don’t know, like I just learned from the e-mails that if you drink a Coke a day, it’s like 15 pounds a year. So if you’re going to have a soda, have something that’s caffeine-free and diet.”
The tips and advice have worked for Young, the administrative assistant, who has lost 47 pounds since she first started doing the challenge three years ago. This year she’s been counting her calorie intake and making evening trips to the gym, where a fitness trainer runs her through a series of strength and cardio workouts several times each week.
And Sgt. Bell, who works in the Capitol Police’s threat assessment division, said he’s already dropped nearly 10 pounds. The progress, he said, has given him a confidence boost for this year’s team, the Specialty Plumps. He and his teammates — a co-worker in his unit and two members of the specialty bomb squad — think they stand a good chance of winning this year, even without a pregnant teammate.
“I’m trying to work on the diet right now and then begin to get down to the gym,” said Bell, who added that he just bought the P90X, a workout system that has gained popularity among members of Congress.
“I also try to cut [my meal] portions down and cut out carbohydrates,” the eight-year veteran Capitol Police officer said.
Morse, who is part of the Top Heavy team this year, initially weighed in at 212 pounds. His goal is to drop down to 190.
“I’ve lost seven pounds so far,” he said. “Or maybe that’s just what I want people to think. Maybe I’ve lost more than that. You see, it’s all a game of chess when it comes to this.”
Morse was quick to highlight the professional benefits of the competition, too.
“A healthy and astute police officer is a great deterrent to crime and people who want to do harm to us,” he said. “If you feel great and are healthy, you present confidence, and people see that, and the people who want to be adverse to us shy away from that.”
So what does a police chief do when he realizes that he’s being ambushed with sweets from opposing teams?
“It came to my attention that the five-pound bag of Hershey’s on my desk happened to be from an opposing team, the ‘3 Hunnies & a Bun’ team, and that package was transferred from my desk to theirs,” he said. “Not that I had any solid evidence it came from them, but sources are many when it comes to this challenge.”