On the third floor of a glass-walled building, at the end of a sleek hallway in a small windowless room, Tarek Morsy put on a bathing cap Thursday, stripped down to his gray boxers and black T-shirt, then climbed into a white ovoid pod that looked as though it had been taken off the set of some 1960s futuristic flick.
The 19-year-old pharmacy student at the University of the Sciences, one of 33 contestants in a school-run Biggest Loser competition, was about to find out whether he was the winner.
Although Morsy knew he had lost a lot of weight in the last 14 weeks, far and away more than anyone else, weight loss would not be the deciding factor. The prize - $250 cash and bragging rights - would go to whomever registered the highest percentage of body-fat loss. The precise calculation would be made by the egg-like contraption.
The university bought the Bod Pod, a $27,000 machine that measures body density with air displacement plethysmography, at the urging of Karin Richards, director of exercise science and wellness management, last year. This contest was the first time it was used on such a large scale, so to speak.
The pod's purpose is "to provide access to top-notch equipment for our students and to teach the importance of body composition, lean and fat mass, versus numbers on a scale or BMI, body mass index," Richards said. The machine is also used for research.
More than one-third of adults in the United States are overweight - so many that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has coined a word for the national epidemic, calling American society "obesogenic."
In the battle against heft, too much focus has been placed on poundage, says Richards, a pixie-faced 40-year-old with a runner's body. She wears a necklace with a pendant etched "One step at a time," a token of her first marathon, which she ran at Disney World last year.
"Too many people, mainly females, rely upon what the scale says, yet the scale does not tell the whole story," she says. "It is the amount of fat that is of real importance, not just overall body pounds."
The university opened the competition to the entire campus. Richards said she was not surprised that so few took up the challenge to be tested in the Bod Pod.
"Ignorance is bliss," she said.
The Bod Pod works by measuring how much air a person sitting motionless inside it displaces. Because clothing and hair can throw off the calculation, the subject has to wear a tight-fitting cap and skin-tight clothes or a bathing suit. Sensors register pressure and volume, and a computer figures out the total body density by using the ratio of body mass to body volume.
Student volunteers from the school's exercise science club were assigned to coach each of the contestants, helping them exercise properly and stay motivated.
"I got lucky with my contestants," said Will Rebman, one of the coaches. "They were all ready to jump on it."
With Rebman's encouragement, Nichole Battle, an administrative coordinator at the university, lost 11.1 pounds and 5.1 percent body fat.
"Before, I was a couch potato. I needed someone that's going to beat on me," Battle said. "I learned the difference between cardio and weight training. Now I know not to just go on the elliptical but to do squats. The squats! And planks. Oh, those planks!"
The Bod Pod gave her an extra incentive to stay on course, she said. "You know you have to come back to this thing. You don't want disappointing results."
Like other contestants, she said her busy life made it hard to find time to exercise and eat well. The contest structure helped her establish healthier habits, but she wasn't going to finish among the top contestants.
Morsy was sure he would. Before he stepped into the pod for his final measurement, he asked about his standing in the competition. Richards told him that the leader, who was measured earlier that morning, had lost 10.6 percent of her body fat.
"Ten percent!!" Morsy groaned. "Who lost 10 percent?"
That would be Brigid Isackman, comptroller and assistant vice president for finance.
Isackman was never overweight. But at 42, she was not as toned as she would like to be, so she joined the competition. "As you get older, you need strength," she said in a telephone interview. Although she did not lose any weight during the 14 weeks - in fact, she gained an ounce - she dropped 14.8 pounds of body fat.
"I feel the difference," she said. "No more muffin top."
Her numbers would be hard to beat.
As Richards lowered the door, Morsy settled onto a plastic molded bench inside and placed his hands in his lap. He'd been measured several times before and knew the procedure. You try to remain still, breathing normally, not speaking. You hear a click and feel slight pressure in your ears as the machine adjusts the volume of air. Richards would run three consecutive 40-second tests, opening the door for a moment after each.
The contest does not end officially until Monday, but because Richards had not heard from 10 of the contestants, she said she did not expect them to appear for a final pod test.
"My whole life, I've had a weight problem. Everyone in my family is big," Morsy said. Although he had tried dieting before, he said he had never felt as motivated as he did now. "My older brother and I were always big together. But last year, he lost 100 pounds. I wanted to be like him."
Since January, Morsy said, he has been going to the gym twice a day, four days a week and he changed his diet, eating more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein.
"I feel much better. Everyone tells me I look so good, and when I tell them I'm in the Biggest Loser they say, 'Oh! You're going to win!' "
When the last test was done, Richards let Morsy out of the pod and began punching numbers into a computer.
"Let's see how you did."
He peered over her shoulder.
"Holy cow!" she cried.
"Wait a sec!"
"I worked the whole semester for this!"
"You lost 51.6 pounds and 47.8 pounds of pure fat, 9.4 percent of body fat lost. You should be so proud!"
Morsy beamed for second, saying he was way ahead in his goal to match his brother's 100-pound loss in a year.
Richards tried to console him. "If it was by weight, you would have won. But it's on body composition."
Morsy slipped on his sweatpants, complaining mildly that it didn't seem fair. "Do you get anything for coming in second?"
"Yes," she said. "An attaboy!"
Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or email@example.com.
The public can arrange to be measured in the Bod Pod for $35 by contacting Karin Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org.