St. Joseph Hospital of Nashua, N.H., this week launched the fourth year of Lighten Up Nashua, a free community online weight-loss program designed to motivate area residents to improve their eating habits and get more exercise.

Since the program began in 2012, more than 18,000 participants have lost more than 6,000 pounds. The program’s current 16-week session runs from Jan. 19 to May 8.

Obesity was identified as a top concern in a community health needs assessment conducted a few years ago, and Lighten Up Nashua is one way St. Joseph Hospital is tackling the problem.

Individuals and four-member teams register online and log their weight and fitness activities each week. A website provides educational materials and helps participants track one another’s progress. It includes recipes, health tips, cooking demonstrations and accounts of monthly winners. Special events like a half-marathon and 5K run attract Lighten Up Nashua participants.

Team is the operative word. “The team camaraderie and competitive spirit is what keeps people going and makes the program successful,” says Kathy Cowette, the hospital’s marketing director.  

It worked for Jason Messier, who lost nearly 72 pounds under the program. “The best thing about the program was the team aspect,” he says. “The encouragement you get from your team is a huge motivator.” He also enjoyed the competition. “It was fun to see where you stand against other people from week to week.”

Cowette says St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua plans a Lighten Up Nashua competition with its sister hospital in Bangor, Maine, beginning in May. She says “it will be head-to-head employee competition,” and part of the hospitals’ joint effort to promote a healthier workforce.

Prizes are offered to the individuals and teams that lose the greatest percentage of weight. Top individual contestants receive a $250 gift card to the Merrimack Premium Outlets – a retail shopping mall containing some 100 stores – and a $100 gift card to Whole Foods. Top team winners each receive a $100 gift card at Whole Foods Market.

But it’s not about the prizes, says Cowette. “People are in this because they want to change their eating and exercise habits, not for what they’ll win,” she says.