A new research study in the Annals of Internal Medicine looks at the provocative question of whether using money as an incentive for weight-loss is effective at helping overweight people lose weight. The answer may surprise you.
Two groups of people in the study were both given a standard behavioral program, and one group also received an account that they could put up to $3 of their own money each day, matched by $3 from the researchers. If their weight loss goals were met at the end of each month, they got to keep the money, but if they failed to meet their goals, they lost the money. The study found that after the end of the 6-8 months, those with the financial incentive lost more weight then the people without the financial incentive.
Sounds almost too good to be true? Well, it is…If we didn’t look any further then the end of the 6-8 month period, we might say this study was successful, and maybe we should pay people not only to lose weight, but to quit smoking, to eat only low cholesterol foods, to take their high blood pressure medication, and so on- but what happens when the money is no longer being paid?
In this study, 9 months after the program ended and no financial incentives remained, the participants gained back most of their weight. In fact, less than about 10% even met their goal of losing a pound per week in the first 24 weeks of the study.
Even though a great deal can be said about the benefits of incentives on people, this study seems to show that a negative incentive also exists. Instead of just having positive outcomes, participants had the chance of losing something too. We don’t like this type of study really- ethically, we want to help our patients lose weight, quit smoking and make healthier lifestyle choices. But, it is about changing lifestyles, and that requires true internal motivation and social support- these items cannot be bought or sold so easily in the medical marketplace.
For good information on losing weight sensibly over the long term, look at two good on-line resources: