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Outcomes in a Program that Offers Financial Rewards for Weight Loss

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Publisher(s): National Bureau of Economic Research

Author(s): J. Cawley; J.A. Price

Topic: Health (Health promotion)

Type: White Paper


In the face of growing obesity in the U.S. population, researchers are continually searching for strategies to help people lose and keep off weight. Most people do not successfully lose weight and even fewer maintain weight loss. The reasons for this failure of the majority of the overweight population to lose weight are complex, but some researchers hypothesize that the intangibility of long- or short-term benefits of weight loss may contribute. Offering financial incentives may help counteract lack of an immediate benefit to weight loss. However, previous published literature does not consistently confirm that financial incentives can help produce consistent weight loss.

Because employers are affected financially by overweight employees, employers were enlisted to provide a variety of financial incentives for this study. Data were drawn from 2,407 employees at seven work sites who participated in yearlong health-promotion programs at their work places. The programs were multipronged, and consisted of e-mail and call-in support, weigh-ins, and financial incentives. Financial rewards differed by employer and included strategies such as steady quarterly rewards for weight loss, or bonds that participants could redeem at the end of the year, if they had achieved a certain amount of weight loss. Control participants received no financial reward at all. The program instituted at each business was overseen by an independent company who provided the nonrandomized data.

This study did not support the finding that financial incentives for weight loss were any more successful than traditional medical methods; future research on similar programs should emphasize decreasing attrition and optimal design of financial incentives to see if these methods hold promise.