By Peter Walker for CNN
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(CNN) -- Mid-way through their two-year MBA program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, friends T. J. Houren and Chris Mulh were learning fast and networking furiously. But one thing bothered them: their classmates' expanding waistlines.
Such were the pressures of long tuition hours, academic deadlines and networking events, very few on the MBA course were finding the time to exercise, or to eat anything other than greasy fast food or calorific party snacks.
So Houren and Mulh put their new business skills to good use: for the academic year just begun, almost half of their classmates are taking part in a Get Fit Illinois!, a club designed to motivate each other into taking action.
Split into teams of two, students can win prizes by going to the gym or exercising more than anyone else in a given month. Meanwhile, a complex spreadsheet based on U.S. government nutritional guidelines assesses teams' diets, with more prizes up for grabs for the healthiest eaters.
Further advice in devising the program came from professors at the university's College of Health and Science.
"With the time constraints of a full-time MBA program, you always have academic and extra-curricular activities, social network events -- for the two of us, the thing that dropped off the quickest was exercise, fitness and nutrition," says Houren, a 27-year-old self-professed exercise fan, who regularly played basketball, football and softball before a far less healthy first year on the MBA program.
"Specifically with nutrition, when you're in a fast-paced environment, the easiest foods to eat are usually the least healthy foods to eat as well," he explains.
"Both of us had been very active our entire lives, and when we got into the program we both realized that we were quite disappointed with how our habits had changed, with the competition on our time."
A lot of his fellow students felt the same, Houren adds: "It was a topic of conversation among all the people in our program. It was what prompted the idea of making this a club, making it a group effort rather than an individual effort."
The stresses of an MBA
While they are perhaps unusually self-motivated, Houren and his classmates are by no means alone in noticing the stresses imposed by MBA courses.
In the UK, Bristol Business School offers classes in meditation for its students to help with stress, while students at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School get the chance to go rock climbing in the nearby Peak District national park.
For Houren, the efforts are already beginning to pay off, just a few weeks into the second year of classes.
"We're in the middle of the first month of the program, and I know that every time I run into people they tell me how they're going to the gym. There's a handful of people who had never gone to the gym before in their life, who are now working out," he says.
As well as the monthly competitions, Houren's club is organizing a series of speakers to further extol the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise, and will try and provide access to fruit and other nutritional snacks, rather than the usual sugar-laden drinks and candy from vending machines.
And Houren hopes the lessons learned from Get Fit Illinois! will prove of long-lasting benefit as he and the other newly-minted MBAs re-enter a business world of long hours, high stress and business dinners.
"I think that's the most important thing -- this is a situation where we're having time constraints probably more than we've had before in our lives, and you can either develop good habits or bad habits," he says.
"If you develop bad habits they're going to be much harder to break later."
Slimming down: the students who battled the bulge.
FACT BOXFT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006
FACT BOXEMBA SNAPSHOT
Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.
A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.
A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.