The health care industry has not been immune to America's obesity epidemic and the chronic health problems that accompany it. But some health systems are emerging as leaders in the fight against the epidemic — and are learning what it takes to win.

Ochsner Health System, with eight hospitals in Louisiana, helped its employees lose 33,000 pounds in 2011 through a workplace wellness program that rewards physical activity and personal attention to blood pressure and other biometrics. The program will begin its fourth year in August. In the current year, 89 percent of Ochsner's 8,100 eligible employees are participating.

"It has continued to pick up steam," says Dorothy Cain, R.N., employee wellness coordinator. "The more folks get into it, they find it is a lot of fun."

Incentive-based workplace wellness programs in general are gaining momentum. Nearly three-quarters of all companies with 1,000 to 100,000 workers used incentives to encourage participation in health improvement programs last year, according to a survey conducted by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments. The average incentive value was $460 — up from $430 in 2010 and $260 the year before. Most companies plan to increase the value of the incentives even more in 2012.

Their motivation is clear. For every $1 companies spend on workplace wellness programs, their medical costs fall by more than $3, according to a 2010 Health Affairs study.

At Ochsner, employees can earn discounts on their insurance premiums — $550 for single coverage and $2,400 for family coverage — if they earn at least 18,000 Virgin HealthMiles racked up by walking and participating in other health-conscious behaviors. HealthMiles is a wellness program developed by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Employees receive pedometers that plug into their computers to upload their activity reports to an online platform; they also can earn HealthMiles by checking in at a workplace kiosk to measure blood pressure and other biometrics, getting an annual physical, receiving a flu shot or other activities. Fifty-five percent of employees who visited the kiosks during the year improved their blood pressure levels, while 24 percent improved their body mass indexes, Cain says. More than 3,000 Ochsner workers tallied enough HealthMiles to earn the incentive in 2011.

The biggest winner was Ochsner. The health costs for employees who were engaged in the program increased by 1.9 percent, whereas the cost for nonparticipants increased by 4 percent," she says.