Most studies have found that programs that offer money to try to change bad habits, like smoking or not exercising, don’t work very well or for very long. However, the chance to win or lose $20 a month persuaded dieters in a yearlong study to lose an average of 9 pounds each. This was four times more weight than participants who were not offered a monetary reward.
Dr. Steve Driver of the Mayo Clinic, a study leader, said that incentives are “not like training wheels where people learn healthy habits and then will continue them on their own” – you have to stick with them for them to work. The key is to make the system self-sustaining, which Mayo did by having people who didn’t lose weight put their penalty payments into a fund that paid rewards to those who succeeded. The study was the longest test yet of financial incentives for weight loss.
The new study was conducted using Mayo Clinic employees. The diet study involved 100 obese employees, half of whom were given weight-loss counseling, monthly weigh-ins and a three-month gym membership, while the other half received those things plus financial incentives. The aim was to lose 4 pounds a month, up to a goal established by their starting weight.
The study participants paid $20 into a kitty if they failed, but if they succeeded, they got a voucher to collect $20 when the study ended. Part of the kitty was used to pay the rewards, while the rest was put into a lottery that anyone could win, regardless of whether they had reached their weight-loss goals or not. Participants in the group that had the financial incentives also earned $10 a month and lottery “tickets” for showing up for monthly weigh-ins and texting their weights to study leaders weekly.
Some medical professionals believe that the study succeeded in increasing the amount of weight loss by using a mix of multiple ways to earn cash for succeeding, penalties for not losing weight, and a chance to recoup lost money after falling off the “diet wagon” and later repenting. Driver said, “People saw that if they stuck with it, they had a chance at winning more than they had lost.” People could have lost as much as $240 or won as much as $360, plus what built up in the lottery fund. Mayo paid for the study to be conducted.