Paying People to Lose Weight

Suzie Velarde, a 38-year-old patient accounts representative at the Poulsbo Medical Center in Poulsbo, Wash., had struggled with her weight for years.

Velarde was about 40 pounds overweight, trying desperately to find the perfect diet to help her shed the pounds and keep them off. But nothing she tried seemed to work.

"I tried low-carb, low-fat, low-everything diets," Velarde said. "But it was hard to stay motivated. I always felt like I was not doing the right thing."

That was until the Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative health-care system, her employer, encouraged all employees to enter into a weight loss challenge in 2006.


The challenge, part of an overall employee wellness program, was an incentive-based weight loss program that rewarded employees who had lost the most weight with prizes.

All the employees participating in the challenge contributed money to a lottery that would go to the "biggest loser" of the group at the end of the three-month challenge, Velarde said

Out of all the participants in the challenge, Velarde won second place with an overall weight loss of 40 pounds, bringing her to a healthier weight.

Such programs that offer financial incentives to those who meet their weight loss goals may indeed be an effective approach to weight loss -- at least in the short term -- according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But there's a catch. The research only confirms the short-term success of such weight loss programs. And the researchers found that for many people, keeping the weight off proved to be another challenge altogether.

As for Velarde, while almost all of the program's participants successfully lost weight through the incentive-based challenge, she said she was one of the few people in the group to keep the weight off.

"I think a lot of [the participants] did low-carb diets and gained the weight back on after the challenge," Velarde said. "I have seen firsthand that a lot of people, once the incentive is gone, gain all of the weight back, and then discouragement returns for them."

Converting Dollars to Pounds

In the study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at 57 people, dividing the participants into three groups: one group that only submitted to monthly weigh-ins, and two other groups that had the monthly weigh-ins and were involved in one of two different financial incentive weight loss plans. All groups had a target weight loss of 16 pounds in 16 weeks.

One of the financial incentive groups had to put their money into a pool, much like the program in which Velarde participated. If participants did not meet their 1-pound-per-week weight loss goal, they had to forfeit the money they deposited. But those who met their goals were rewarded with extra money.

Participants in the other financial incentive group were not required to deposit their own money into a pool, but rather were entered into a financial lottery in which they had the chance to win money for meeting their weight loss goals.

Results showed that after the 16 weeks, people in the monthly weigh-in group without any financial incentives had lost 4 pounds, while those in the deposit group had lost 14 pounds and those in the lottery group had lost 13 pounds.

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