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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Weight Loss

The biggest loser: Buying weight loss

Seems money trumps health when it comes to losing weight. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today found that people were more likely to stick to weight-loss programs if they were offered cash incentives. And what about the reward of being thinner and healthier, of dropping pounds to lower one's risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and a slew of other obesity-related ails? Didn't hold a candle to the money prize, according to researchers.

Approximately 200 million Americans (two thirds of the population) are fat. That is to say, they are overweight or obese, according to standard body mass index criteria. Worldwide, obesity has become even more prevalent than hunger, and the trend shows no signs of reversing.


But scientists found that the need for instant gratification that may drive obesity may also be harnessed to fight it.  Specifically, they assigned 57 participants the same weight loss goal of 16 pounds in 16 weeks and discovered that those offered cash incentives (no more than $100) along the way dropped an average of four pounds more than those who weren't paid for pounds.

But as Oprah well knows, losing weight is one thing, but keeping it off is another. Seven months after the study concluded, the subjects tended to regain some of the weight they had lost whether or not they received cash prizes.  This demonstrates that the strategy might be best suited for short-term as opposed to long-term weight loss objectives. 

"For better or worse, we [humans] put a disproportionate emphasis on immediate gratification," says lead author Kevin Volpp, Associate Professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School. Human nature is tough to change; accepting this reality and using money to entice people toward healthier behaviors may not be such a bad idea, he contends.

Insurance companies and employers might be wise to consider using financial incentives to encourage and reinforce more healthy behaviors, he adds. Some businesses already have such reward systems in place, offering bonuses to employees who regularly work out, for instance, but Volpp says more should follow suit.

Image Credit ©iStockphoto.com/Luis Pedrosa

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