By Jennifer Reingold, senior editor
FORTUNE -- We all started the year full of resolve, didn't we? 2014 is going to be THE year. Those extra pounds are gone, baby, gone, starting today!
Promises like these are at the core of the $20 billion weight loss business. But one stumbling block to success is the speed at which these promises are broken. After all, recent studies show that just 8% of people actually keep their New Year's resolutions.
But this year, remorseful overindulgers have a new option -- one whose early results ought to worry the likes of Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Fortune has learned that Retrofit, a two-year-old Chicago-based company that takes a personalized approach to weight loss, is this morning announcing Retrofit Group, a new, behavior-driven program that targets companies seeking to drive down their health care costs. Participating companies can subsidize the program for their employees or simply offer it full price; the current cost is $168 for every 13 weeks, and Retrofit hopes users will commit to one full year. Companies such as Google (GOOG), Salesforce (CRM), and even the American Medical Association have already signed up as beta users.
The logic is simple: According to a recent Duke University study, overweight employees cost their employers almost $1,500 more per year than their slimmer counterparts. And that doesn't count absenteeism, productivity, and other problems, not to mention the spiraling cost of health care itself. The American Heart Association estimates that in 2013, the total costs connected to obesity reached an astounding $254 billion. So it's in a corporation's interest to help its workers get and stay fit.
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Of course, Weight Watchers (WTW) -- the market leader -- already works closely with companies. Retrofit points to its early results as its differentiator. Participants in Retrofit, which already has several thousand individual users, are averaging a 19.1 pound weight loss over a 12-month period, or 8.3% of their body weight. That's not a shocking amount of weight loss. But what is remarkable is that 90% of Retrofit users have lost weight and maintained that loss within 0.5% of their body weight. The key: a personalized program that uses accountability in the form of "coaches" to help keep you on track. "This is a behavior change program," says CEO and founder Jeff Hyman, "not some stupid diet." Interestingly, 50% of participants so far are men -- a demographic that's been notoriously hard for weight loss companies to reach.
So how does it work? Start with technology. Each participant buys (or, in this new offering, the partner company subsidizes) a wireless scale and a FitBit fitness monitor, both of which they are encouraged to use daily (like the stock market, Retrofit uses a 10-day moving average to see which way you are trending; if you start to go in the wrong direction, you'll hear about it.) Users take a very detailed quiz to determine eating behaviors. (Are you a people pleaser? A couch potato?) And then there's the personalized attention from Retrofit. Individual options range from $98 to $258 per month, depending on the level of personal interaction you get with Retrofit's "coaches."
Much like attending a group meeting a la Weight Watchers, the employee attends weekly virtual meetings with general weight loss strategies that are offered at, say, 25 different times to account for various scheduling (because they are online, they don't require a minimum group). Then they join an online cohort that can be segmented in any way the corporate client chooses (women trying to lose baby weight across the company; men with diabetes; private meetings for people not comfortable sharing). And finally, they track food and exercise on their personal Retrofit page, which is monitored by a coach -- a dietician, exercise specialist, or behavioral expert -- who will examine the data and offer modifications. "Here's the analogy," says Hyman, a serial entrepreneur who hit on the idea after a visit to Canyon Ranch. "First you take, say, Accounting 101, a 400-person lecture. Then you go to study group. And then, you have office hours. You still have accountability, but you're also leveraging the power of the group for support."
Tracy Strunk, a land-use planner in Fairfax County, Va., who has been on the plan for seven weeks and has lost about seven pounds, says she's going to try to stick with the program. "I like the emphasis on finding things that really work with your life," she says. "Instead of a total overhaul, they ask you to see what things you can change and then try it for a week. That works for me."
Me too. I joined the individual program for Retrofit in October, hoping to lose that pesky freshman 15 that I've had since, well, freshman year, a couple of decades ago. I've done it all, from running marathons to crash diets to Weight Watchers, which I have paid monthly dues to for years. I like Weight Watchers and its camaraderie, though I must confess it's been better at maintaining my weight than helping me lose it.
Retrofit is different, because it's personal. If I don't log my food or haven't run for a week (I committed to my coaches to run three times), I get a gentle nudge from my coaches. The charts and tables show my trend -- and my projected trend, which is slow but, importantly, achievable. The coaches ask me to make small changes every week that I can commit to -- rather than all-in change that I'm bound to blow. For the first time, I feel as if I am finally going to attack some of the behaviors that I've been aware of but still unable to alter for so long. For example, Julie Roberti, my nutritionist, finally convinced me that if I ate MORE during the day, not less, I'd be less likely to snarf my children's leftovers as soon as I get home from work. So far, I've lost 5.5 pounds, even including a holiday road trip through Southern BBQ territory. What's exciting is that I feel convinced that I'll lose more.
Easier said than done, of course, on this second day of 2014. But if Retrofit can help companies address the costs that excess weight takes on their employees -- and help me fit into those jeans in the process -- it's got more than a fighting chance.
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