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March 11, 2013 at 11:44 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Do Monetary Incentives for Weight Loss Work?

By Anne Christen More Blogs by This Author

Incentives for weight loss…I never knew they existed until this moment. Immediately upon realizing they do, I couldn’t help but ask myself if compensation for losing weight would motivate me to get off the couch and start exercising. The honest answer is that at first I would probably be very enthusiastic. As time wore on, however, I’d likely lose interest. This is because, as I have sadly discovered about myself, I don’t have the patience to really stick with a weight loss regimen. I’m about 60 pounds overweight, which means immediate results aren’t likely to occur. And losing 1 to 2 pounds per week doesn’t add up quickly enough for me to feel rewarded.

Losing Weight for Cash

But back to the matter at-hand: incentives. It seems I’m alone in my thinking, because some research supports the idea that money can entice people to lose weight. In 2007, researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill recruited more than 200 overweight or obese employees for a study. One-third received no financial reward for their weight loss after three months; another one-third received $7 for every 1 percent drop in their body weight; the remaining one-third were given $14 for every 1 percent decrease. The participants were not given a structured diet and fitness program.

After three months, those who received no money lost an average of two pounds. Those in the $7 group lost three pounds, while those in the $14 group lost five pounds.

Office Pools

In 2011, a report from the Washington Post revealed that workplace wagers for weight loss were well underway. One office was sponsoring a $10,000 cash reward for the person who lost the most body fat. In these scenarios, however, participants have to ante up some of their own money to participate. All of this occurred under the watch of a team of coworkers, who monitored each other’s progress (or lack thereof).

The 120 employees who competed for the afore-mentioned $10,000 cash reward collectively lost more than 400 pounds the first week, which equates to slightly more than three pounds per participant. Follow-up conducted after the contest, however, showed that when the money stopped flowing, the weight returned.

Rewards and Penalties

The latest research, revealed in March 2013, shows that cash incentives can and do work, but they must come with a caveat. According to a study of Mayo Clinic employees, giving people a combination of rewards and penalties is the key to success. In this scenario, participants had a chance to either win or lose $20 a month based on their weight loss success. After a year, the dieters dropped an average of nine pounds – four times more weight than others who were not offered money for their progress. And 27 of the 50 participants came out ahead in terms of money.

Yet, some people argue that incentives of any sort do not work, whether they are in the form of money or paid vacation time, and whether they are for job performance or weight loss. A 1993 report from the Harvard Business Review showed that rewards secure only one thing: temporary compliance. When it comes to producing lasting change in attitudes and behaviors, however, rewards are strikingly ineffective. Once the incentive exhausts itself, people revert to their old behaviors. The report said:

“Studies show that offering incentives for losing weight, quitting smoking, using seat belts, or (in the case of children) acting generously is not only less effective than other strategies but often proves worse than doing nothing at all.”


I have to believe that this just confirms what people everywhere have said for quite some time: there is no quick, magical fix for weight loss. Rewards do not create the need for enduring action, but merely change what we do for a limited amount of time. Real weight loss requires a commitment to healthy living, plain and simple. When that is present, the loss of pounds will be reward enough.


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