raleigh, n.c. -- People will lose weight for money, even a little money, suggests a study that offers another option for employers looking for ways to cut healthcare costs.
The research published in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that cash incentives could be a success even when the payout was as little as $7 for dropping just a few pounds in three months.
Unlike providing on-site fitness centers or improving offerings in the company cafeteria, cash rewards provide a company with a guaranteed return, the researchers said.
"They really can't be a bad investment because you don't pay people unless they lose weight," said Eric A. Finkelstein, the study's lead author and a health economist at RTI International, a research institute.
The study involved about 200 overweight employees at several colleges in North Carolina, divided into three groups. One group got no incentives while the other two groups received $7 or $14 for each percentage point of weight lost.
For example, someone in the middle group weighing 200 pounds who lost 10 pounds, or 5%, would get $35.
Participants didn't get any help on how to lose weight. In the end, employees who received the most incentives lost the most weight, an average of nearly 5 pounds after three months. Those offered no incentives lost 2 pounds; those in the $7 group lost about 3 pounds.
Those in the $14 group were more than five times as likely to lose 5% of their weight -- the amount research has shown to be clinically significant, according to the study.
Finkelstein and coauthors Laura Linnan and Deborah Tate, School of Public Health professors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, are analyzing data from a follow-up study that observed about 1,000 participants for a year. In that study, financial incentives were tested against a Web-based weight loss program and changes at the office, such as more-healthful cafeteria food.
Linnan said more research was needed to determine the ideal dollar amount and whether incentives worked in the long term.
"It's clear that one of the biggest challenges is to help people who lose weight keep the weight off," she said.
Plant worker Vonderahe Rivera said the financial incentives offered by her employer had helped her lose a total of 50 pounds and keep it off. Over the last five years, O'Fallon, Mo.-based VSM Abrasives, which makes sandpaper, has been rewarding its 125 employees with cash for trimming their weight and an extra day off each year if they don't gain it back.
"The money is great and the day off is great," said the 51-year-old Rivera, who this year lost 25 pounds and got $125 when her employee team reached its weight loss goal.