Money not the best motivator to shed pounds

CORNELL (US)—Even the promise of cold hard cash is not motivation enough for some obese people to lose weight, a new Cornell University study finds.

When researchers conducted a yearlong program that offered financial incentives for pounds lost, the majority of study volunteers dropped out within the year, and the average weight loss of those who stayed in the program was only three to five pounds higher than a control group.

“After one year, those who were paid quarterly rewards lost an average of 1.4 pounds, which was not significantly different than the control group,” says John Cawley, associate professor of policy analysis and management in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

The findings are published as a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Cawley and graduate student Joshua A. Price evaluated data on 2,407 obese employees who participated in worksite health-promotion programs with their company in 17 locations.

Obesity rates in the United States have doubled since 1980. As of 2003-04, 66 percent of Americans were overweight and almost half of those were obese. Because obesity is associated with a host of adverse health and labor market outcomes, it is in employers’ interests to help their obese employees lose weight, Cawley says.

In the study, one group of workers received quarterly rewards for weight loss, another group paid a monthly fee that was refunded if they achieved weight loss goals, and a third group which had no financial incentives served as the control group.

Those who paid the monthly refundable fees lost an average of 3.6 pounds—1.9 pounds more than the control group, but “to some extent this may be due to only the most motivated workers being willing to pay monthly fees to participate,” and not drop out of the program, Cawley explains.

Dropout rates for participants who paid monthly refundable fees were 57 percent compared with 76 percent of those who received quarterly cash rewards. The magnitude of the financial reward had a direct impact on weight loss, Cawley notes.

For example, an obese person who lost 5 percent of baseline weight received $15, but received $75 for losing 20 percent. Cawley believes future work should test whether weight loss is greater when the financial rewards are higher.

The study was supported in part by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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