Apparently betting that you'll lose weight - or quit smoking, or exercise regularly - can work. A few Web sites to facilitate these bets have popped up, and there are scientific investigations demonstrating that financial incentives can help individuals lose weight or make other positive changes in their lives.
One, published in the December 10, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that two groups of people who were given financial incentives to lose weight were more successful than those in a control group that followed the same program. In one group, members could collect their winnings in a lottery if they met their weight loss goals. Members of the other group put up their own money as part of a contract to lose weight and agreed to forfeit it if they didn't meet their weight loss goals in a specified period of time. About half of those in the two financial incentives groups succeeded in losing 16 pounds in 16 weeks. On average, participants in these groups lost more than 13 pounds compared to an average loss of only 3.9 pounds in the control group.
Financial incentives also seem to work for quitting smoking. The same University of Pennsylvania team that conducted the weight loss study also found that a cash reward can help smokers quit. But while study participants who had monetary incentives to quit and abstain from cigarettes for six months did much better than those in the control group, only 14.7 percent of them actually were able to meet the goal (compared to 5 percent in the control group).
Losing weight isn't easy. You might think that improved health would be motivation enough, but judging from the extent of the worldwide obesity epidemic, it isn't. If winning (or, at least, not losing) money is the incentive you need, by all means bet on your ability to lose weight. However, if you win, you would be wise to make another, bigger bet that you can keep the weight off.
Andrew Weil, M.D.