If that too-tight Armani dress hanging in your closet doesn't inspire you to lose a few pounds, how about that hot date you've got planned or that high school reunion that's coming up? If none of that motivates you, how about money? According to entrepreneur Winton Rossiter, cold, hard cash is the greatest incentive of all. The Harvard MBA has come up with a scheme that allows people to earn money by losing weight. Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is currently testing his program and plans to make it available to everyone in this fast-growing (around the middle) country in 2010.
Rossiter's program, called Weight Wins, requires dieters to pay a £45 ($72) membership fee plus £10 ($16) per month in dues. Participants then earn cash rewards based on the amount of weight they lose: commit to shedding 50 pounds over seven months, then keep it off for five months, and you'll earn £300 ($478). Lose 150 pounds over 21 months, keep it off for three months, and you'll pocket £1,000 ($1,594). "We live in an incentive-driven culture," says Rossiter, a former financial analyst. "We study hard so we can get good grades, we get good grades so we can get a good job, we go to work on rainy Monday mornings so we can get a salary. So why not apply this basic motivational tool for something that is positive for yourself, which is to get healthy and solve your weight problems?"
There is tangible upside here for committed dieters, with cash rewards ranging from £80 ($127) to £1,000 ($1,594) depending on how much weight they need to lose and the length of their commitment. There's even the option of paying a double membership fee of £90 ($143) plus £20 ($32) in monthly dues to double the rewards to a maximum of £1,750 ($2,790). In effect, they bet on their own success. But unlike gambling, says Rossiter, "This is a game of skill because you are in control of your own weight. You control your calorie input and output."
So far, the program seems to be working. Preliminary results for 600 obese people show that, over a six-month period, the average person lost 14.3 pounds. After a year, active participants had lost over 29 pounds. Rossiter says this is more than double the average amount dieters lose in traditional weight-loss programs. "You are paying for a motivational system that maximizes your chances of success," he says. "We have people signing up to lose 100 pounds and committing over two years -- and a lot of them are going to do it."
Rossiter believes he has developed a breakthrough solution to the obesity epidemic: "Almost all other diets and weight-loss schemes focus on the method for losing weight. We focus on how to do it over the long term and we provide motivation by rewarding healthy weight loss. That's why we're getting fantastic results."
Some complain that the NHS is too strapped to condone a program that actually gives away money. Ann Widdecombe, a conservative member of parliament told the BBC, "If the NHS had money to spare it would be okay, but the fact is the NHS is short of money." Widdecombe herself lost 35 pounds while participating in the British TV show Celebrity Fit Club in 2002. But she still insists weight loss should not be a top priority for the NHS, arguing: "There are plenty of people who cannot get funding to pay for treatment for illnesses."
Rossiter counters, "This is the most sensible investment the NHS can make." Brits are closing in on Americans' claim as the fattest people in the world: according to the U.K. Department of Health, nearly one in four British adults are obese. In America those numbers are only slightly worse, with nearly one in three adults defined as obese.
This is not merely an issue of revamping buses and trains with wider seats or adjusting the "Maximum number of passenger" signs in elevators. Each year, the U.K. spends £4.2 billion ($6.7 billion) treating obesity and related illnesses. Rossiter claims his program could save the government £1.7 billion ($2.7 billion) in lifetime medical expenses for every million people who take part.
This is not the first time financial incentives have been suggested as a way to help people lose weight. In 2007, a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that "financial incentives can be effective in motivating overweight employees to lose weight."
That same year, an Italian mayor named Gianluca Buonanno took this idea to heart and cut a deal with his townspeople: according to Slate.com, he promised men 50 euros ($74) if they lost 9 pounds in a month, and women 50 euros ($74) for losing 7 pounds in a month. He also offered a bonus of 200 euros ($298) if they maintained the weight loss over five months.
Rossiter now hopes to take his program to America, which is currently the most overweight country in the world. After all, this is the super-sized land where airlines have threatened to charge extra for passengers who can't fit into a standard airline seat. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to bring this solution to America and to other countries with a weight problem," he says.
For those who remain skeptical about the power of financial motivation, consider the pact made by two overweight economists profiled in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's best-selling book, Nudge. The two men agreed that if either of them failed to lose 30 pounds in nine months, he'd have to pay the other $10,000. Needless to say, they both lost the weight, thereby proving that cash is more irresistible than food.
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