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Originally published April 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 28, 2008 at 10:40 AM

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Two local guys discover the secret of guy weight-loss motivation: betting on it

Bet you can't guess what helped two guys from Ballard lose weight and keep it off. Here's a clue: Look at that first sentence again. By laying stakes on...

Special to The Seattle Times

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Postings on "The Fat Buoy Swims" bet between brothers Greg, Brian and Tom Dirks

"I am going to the pool and starting to practice, I have to travel the next two weeks and road food is bad food."

Tom, April 10

"Please don't give up, Tom. There are hundreds of good things to eat on the road. For instance, read this article today [linked story about rats and snakes]."

Brian, Apirl 10

"I am not ... I am too scared that killer whales will come up and think that I am a lame seal. I will not lose this bet."

Tom, April 11

"Tom, if you get your leg torn off by a killer whale you'll make your weight goal! We'll have to ask John if the rules allow for that. Another pound today!"

Greg, April 11

Bet you can't guess what helped two guys from Ballard lose weight and keep it off.

Here's a clue: Look at that first sentence again.

By laying stakes on their weight-loss goals, John Dirks and Adam Orkand have stumbled upon a method — and a healthy hobby — that keeps them in shape.

After confronting their own corpulence on a February 2007 Maui vacation with their families, the friends vowed to get down to 200 pounds. In gentlemanly fashion, they decided that friendly wager would make things interesting: The loser — or "nonloser" — would pay the winner $200.

It was no surprise that "metrics geek" Orkand would start plotting the pair's progress online using an Excel spreadsheet. (Orkand, 38, manages a UW-affiliated medical training Web site; Dirks, 46, is usability manager at Seattle's Blink Interactive.)

After three months of careful eating, exercise, daily weigh-ins and good-natured jibes, both men had met their goal. And they've kept the weight off for more than a year. So in December, the two decided to share their experience and success by creating www.fatbet.net, a largely noncommercial Web site that allows the public to place their own fatbets.

"We originally created the site for guys, since they didn't seem to have a place to go for support," says Dirks.

"And men are often in denial," Orkand adds, "thinking they're still in shape for football when they're actually carrying 20 or 30 extra pounds."

Nonetheless, Fatbet is a gender-neutral, free tool. An on-screen graph plots weight entries in relation to a gradually descending blue line. The guys found immediate feedback particularly motivational.

"You want to stay below that blue line," Orkand explains. "If you rise above it you should be worried." He displays a friend's chart on a handheld device. A steady downward trend is interrupted by a couple of spikes above the blue line.

"He was doing great," Orkand laments. "Until those two nights of Italian food. ... "

Dirks nods. "With Fatbet you really see the consequences of your choices."

A message feature lets users post motivational — or snide — comments to fellow competitors. And friends can be granted access to observe vicariously from the sidelines. (They can't post comments, however.) This plays directly into some of the research that the two did, which showed that people who are successful at weight loss 1) make their efforts public, 2) pay attention to the process and 3) make it fun.

PJ Glassey, CEO of Seattle's X Gym, says there are gender differences when it comes to motivating men and women to get fit.

"Men seem to work well off the whole public-attention thing, [and] are more pressured to rise to the top and be powerful," he says. "And an online graph of progress fits into this mentality pretty well. It's a public depiction of someone climbing a ladder and beating someone else, much like in the corporate world."

A "Featured Fatbet" highlights a competition already under way. Three of Dirks' brothers are currently in the spotlight, with their (ill-advised, say Dirks and Orkand) effort to shed a combined 70 pounds in only two months. Losers of this bet, dubbed "The Fat Buoy Swims," must brave the frigid waters of Puget Sound and swim out to a marine buoy bobbing off the shore of Camano Island.

Glassey says fitness competitions should be based on the percentage of fat lost rather than overall pounds. "Because people don't care about losing muscle [and will] do other unhealthy tricks just to win."

Two Yale professors who had a weight-loss experience similar to Dirks and Orkand are making more of a business for themselves from the results. At www.stickK.com, contestants can put up actual dollars up front, with the Web site responsible for doling out the proceeds at the end of the competition.

Dirks and Orkand prefer that participants come up with more creative wagers — say, with losers forced to sing karaoke in public.

But no matter what the stakes, the results are far from guaranteed.

"Certain personalities," Glassey says, "will work very well with the fatbet concept, while others will see themselves falling above the line and just give up." He cautions, "Weight loss is never a straight line."

Although Fatbet.net is relatively new, and has been promoted primarily among family and friends, more than 225 users have already joined. Bets are even under way in Zimbabwe and England, where users speak in terms of losing "a stone" — or 14 pounds.

"Women seem to set more attainable goals and play the game more healthfully," Dirks says. Especially compared with his brothers, whose postings refer to dubious — and one hopes, apocryphal — tales of a magical laxative and vodka purgative.

Though neither of the site's founders has resorted to such extremes in their own efforts to hit their desired weight-loss goals, they admit that the competition can become fierce as the final weigh-in approaches. And Orkand does suspect that Dirks — a regular blood donor — has taken to scheduling his blood-bank visits to coincide with a bet's last days.

Only slightly abashed, Dirks says, "Well, like they say, 'A pint's a pound, the world around.' "

Yes, it can get ugly.

Dirks and Orkand are sure of one thing: Fatbet.net will always have a presence on the Web, if only for one reason:

"We need it," says Orkand, while a sheepish Dirks confesses. "When I went 'off-bet' during maintenance I regained 10 pounds."

Ultimately, as with any weight-loss endeavor, success lies in the hands — and mouths — of the participants. But Fatbet also lays odds on the allure of sheer competitiveness. For although Orkand speaks happily of looser pants and better health, it's obvious that the true spark in his eye comes from knowing that he's able to make and keep one simple, yet powerful vow:

"I will not lose a bet."

Megan Sheppard is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times. megans@hootspa.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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