Could Giving People Cash Help Them Lose Weight?

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Dec. 6, 2022 -- As the nation continues to struggle with mass obesity, can paying people to lose weight help more than other incentives?

A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine says it can.

Participants in the study who were offered cash to lose weight or follow weight loss activities were more likely to drop pounds – compared to people who were given books, fitness trackers, and a weight loss program, researchers found.

The 688 participants in New York and Los Angeles were poor, because low-income communities struggle more with weight loss. All were adults, 18 to 70 with obesity. Their average weight was 218 pounds to start. Almost all were women and almost all were Hispanic. 

Those in the control group were given resources, including a membership to WW Freestyle (formerly Weight Watchers), education, and a food diary.

A second “outcome based” group was paid based on the percentage of weight lost. The third “goal directed” members were paid for maintaining behaviors like keeping a food diary and recording 75 minutes of physical activity every week. People in both these groups could receive up to $750.

After six months, participants were weighed to see how many in each group lost at least 5% of their body weight. In the control group, it was 22.1%. In the goal-directed group, it was 39%, and in the outcome-based group it was 49.1%.

Still, the goal-driven idea could pay greater dividends among the general population, said senior study author Melanie Jay, MD, co-director of NYU Langone Health’s Comprehensive Program on Obesity in New York City.

“Even if less weight is lost, adopting lifelong physical activity or better eating habits may be more important,” she said.