home icon

Want to Lose Weight? Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Studies show that a weight-loss wager is a powerful motivator

By Matthew Solan | October 18, 2012
Contributor Photo

Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

Would you lose weight if someone paid you? You bet.
 
Growing evidence suggests people who participate in competitions that reward cash for reaching weight-loss goals can enjoy huge payoffs — lighter on the scale, fatter in the wallet.
 
Take, for example, a 2008 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The JAMA study involved 57 healthy people aged 30-70 with body mass indexes (BMI) of 30 to 40, which put them in the obese range. One group was offered “contracts” — participants could contribute up to $3 each day and it would be matched like a 401(k) plan. At the end of the month, the money was refunded — but only if they met or exceeded their weight-loss goal. After 16 weeks, the money group lost an average of about 14 pounds more than the control group — and picked up a nice return on their investments.
 
Financial incentive is not a new concept. In today’s reality TV world, people will do almost anything for money. Look at the popularity of The Biggest Loser, where weight-loss contestants compete for cash prizes. The show, in its 14th season, has spawned variations in 24 countries, from Brunei to South Africa to India.

(More: The Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Nutrients You Need Right Now)
 
The Psychology of Pounds for Dollars

So why does money buy less weight?
 
From a psychological perspective, the incentives work to offset the natural tendency people have to procrastinate between immediate gratification and delayed benefits, says Dr. Kevin Volpp, of the University of Pennsylvania, who led the JAMA study. “The incentives help to make the benefits of healthy behavior that drive weight loss more salient in the present.”
 
This is true of both men and women. Men are more inclined to wager on events — after all, who built Vegas and invented Fantasy Football? But women are equally attracted to the idea of winning money by losing, Volpp says.
 
For boomers who struggle with weight issues the contest's potential payoff helps them keep their eye on the ultimate prize: greater and lasting weight loss. That was the case with Stan Feldbusch, 58. At his daughter's urging, he joined a team competition with HealthyWage.com. (For more about this website and others offering weight-loss competitions, see sidebar, Best On-Line Betting Sites). There were 110 teams in the three-month contest; first prize being $10,000.

 “I lost weight before on other diet plans, but it never stayed off,” he says. “With a big payoff at stake, though, it made the desire stronger — I could lose weight and win money. And if I didn’t win, I would still win because I lost extra weight.”
 
During the competition, the team had weekly group meetings where they shared advice on how to counter obstacles. They also took a team photo every week to document their process, and also committed to exercise together, taking, for example, regular three-mile walks.
 
There were no specific diet plans they had to follow. Each member could embrace whatever strategy they wanted. For Feldbusch, he chose what he called “Atkins light,” shunning his love of bread for more lean protein. He also turned up the volume on his produce intake. (This is common for most weight loss contests. It's not about a certain diet, but rather building healthier habits.)   
           
The only firm rule was that no team member could lose more that 16 percent of his or her body weight. This was to keep anyone from embracing dangerous crash diets. Out of the 110 teams, only five made it to the 16 percent figure.
 
In the end, Feldbusch’s team finished third with 227 total pounds lost (he dropped 55 pounds from his 290-plus frame), but still collected $3,000.

A Tag-Team Approach Also Pays Off
 
Yet, the real power of weight-loss competition goes beyond the dollar signs. It is the tag-team approach of strong social support and the payoff potential, says Tricia Leahey, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Her research into weight-loss contests has found that both aspects feed each other to create more powerful motivation and commitment, the areas with which overweight people often struggle.
 
“If your teammates or partner lose weight they create a positive social influence and you tend to lose more weight," Leahey says. "And if you are motivated to lose weight because of a cash award, you may influence others to do the same. It can create this ongoing cycle where they both rely on and motivate each other to reach their health goals.”
 
This especially helps deflect that barrage of temptations during moments of weakness. “When I was faced between eating yogurt or a doughnut, I would ask myself, ‘Is that doughnut worth $10,000?’,” Feldbusch says. “I didn’t want to let the team down and ruin our chance for winning. It changed my behavior and that is something I didn’t have when I tried to lose weight by myself.”                      
 
Best Online Betting Sites
 
There are many websites that conduct weight-loss contests or pay rewards for healthy behaviors; others give you the opportunity to punish yourself financially if you don’t reach your goal. Here are a few you can try. Of course, you can always round up your friends, toss money into a pot and see who will be the biggest loser after three months.
 
HealthyWage.com Offers weight-loss challenges where you bet your own money to reach your goal. In the 10-percent challenge, for example, you pay $100 to participate; if you lose 10 percent of your body weight over six months you win $200. It also offers team challenges with more lucrative payouts. There are contests starting every few months.
 
Dietbet.com This site lets you join other people to bet on weight loss. You sign up with at least one other person and get 28 days to lose pounds. One winner gets the entire prize. (If there are multiple winners, each gets an equal share of the pot.)
 
StickK.com Place your money on the line to reach any health goal, such as exercise, weight loss and giving up smoking. Say, for instance, you want to lose 20 pounds in 20 weeks and you stake $10 a week. If you don’t make your weekly goal (in this case, a one-pound loss), your credit card is charged $10. Make your goal and there is no charge. After your contract ends, the amount you lose is sent to your designated recipient, like a friend or charity.