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Cash + competition can boost weight loss

U. PENNSYLVANIA (US) — People offered cash awards to lose weight may drop more pounds if they’re competing with others in the same situation.

A new study enrolled employees of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 to 40 kg/m2 and compared two weight-loss incentive strategies.

The first strategy paid individual employees $100 per month for each month that they met their weight-loss goals. The second strategy offered groups of five people $500 per month for each month they met their goals. In the second group, employees who met their goals received the balance of money unearned by employees who did not meet their goals.

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At the end of the six-month study, the group cash incentive led to a weight loss that was approximately seven pounds greater than the individual cash incentive. An estimated 86 percent of large employers are using some kind of financial incentive to encourage their employees to lose weight.

“To our knowledge, our study is the only randomized trial to compare the effects of group competition-based and individual incentives for weight loss,” says Kevin Volpp, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study published in the Annals of Medicine.

“These new findings open up the possibility of more effective interventions for getting people to lose weight and could apply to other areas of serious health concern, such as smoking, as well.”

The greater effectiveness of the group incentive was likely tied to the opportunity to earn a reward larger than $100 for achieving a weight-loss goal, and also the competition involved in such designs. The fact that most group members did not meet their weight-loss goals in most months likely provided additional inspiration by leaving a larger reward for those who did meet their goals.

“Under the Affordable Care Act, employers will be able to offer even larger financial incentives than they do now to encourage healthy behaviors among their employees,” says co-author David Asch, professor of medicine.

“Our study demonstrates that how one offers the incentive is critically important.  A lot of employers, insurers, and health care institutions are rolling out incentive programs now, and with a little design help they can make those programs much more effective.”

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University contributed to the study. Funding came from the National Institute on Aging, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

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