“People saw that if they stuck with it, they had a chance at winning more than they had lost,” Driver said.
Participants in the financial incentives group also earned $10 a month and lottery “tickets” for coming to monthly weigh-ins and texting their weights to study leaders each week, said Dr. Don Hensrud, preventive medicine chief at Mayo. So people could have lost as much as $240 or won as much as $360, plus what built up in the lottery fund.
After a year, 27 of the 50 financial incentive participants came out ahead moneywise. About 62 percent of them completed the study versus 26 percent of the other group. The incentives group lost a little more than 9 pounds on average, compared to 2.3 pounds for the others.
The results are promising, but people may need to lose more than 9 pounds to make a big difference in health, said Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.
“There’s been an explosion of interest in this” and 86 percent of large employers now provide incentive programs like this, he said.
The cash was a big motivator for one study participant — Audrey Traun, 29, a lab training specialist who dropped 40 pounds, from 215 pounds to 175.
“I was impressed. I didn’t think I was quite capable of that,” said Traun, who lives in Kellogg, Minn. As the study went on, though, the cash became less important, and “it was actually more motivating to see my progress — pounds lost and how my clothes were fitting,” she said.
Traun used the nearly $400 she earned in the study on a family vacation.
In England, there was big enthusiasm a few years back for campaigns using cash or gift certificates to convince people to make healthier choices, like getting vaccinated, quitting smoking and losing weight. But after a few limited trials, the programs have mostly petered out. The most successful were those that offered pregnant women vouchers if they stopped smoking; several of those programs are still in place.
“You have to prove these schemes work otherwise it’s just money down the drain,” said Eleni Mantzari, who studies financial incentives in health at King’s College London. People often revert to unhealthy habits once the financial motivation is gone, she said.