Group incentives boost weight loss

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Typically when entering into an expected hard-fought battle, it's best not to involve too many reinforcements. But this certainly isn’t the case in the workforce fight against weight, a study published in the April 2 issue of the American College of Physicians’ (ACP) Annals of Internal Medicine contends.

While studying the effects of financial incentives on obese employees, researchers were greeted once more with the power of group work, finding that group-based financial incentives promoted more weight loss than individual monetary perks when it came to workplace programs aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles.

Employee participants with body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 40 kg/m2 — 105 subjects in total — were placed, at random, on one of the below three weight-loss teams:

  • Control group/No Incentives — “Participants were given a link to the Weight-control Information Network of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and were scheduled for monthly weigh-ins and reminded by an automated e-mail or text message to attend the weigh-ins. After the weigh-in, an automated message notified participants of whether they met or did not meet their weight-loss goal for the period,” according to the study methodology.
  • Individual Incentives — “Individuals were given the same information as the first group, but were also told that $100 would be set aside for them at baseline, four weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks, 16 weeks, and 20 weeks, and that the $100 would be electronically transmitted to them if they at least met their target monthly weight-loss goal. After each weigh-in, an automated message notified the participants of their earnings, or what they would have earned if they had met their target.”
  • Group Incentives — “Participants were divided into groups of five but were not told the identity of their fellow group members. Each group of five was given the same weight-loss information as the other groups, but also was told that they would earn $500 to split among just the members of the group who at least met their target weight-loss goal for the month. Those who didn’t meet their goals were not part of the split. If no participant met the weight-loss goal, then no money was distributed. As in the other groups, an automated message notified participants of their earnings or what they would have earned.”

Following a 24-week study period, those in the group incentive block lost an average of 7 pounds more than those receiving individual incentives, and an average of 10 pounds more than participants in the control group. With 12 weeks passed since the end of incentivized action, subjects in the group incentive circuit maintained greater weight loss than the control cohort, although those in the individual incentives group proved the most able to keep weight loss steady sans monetary encouragement.

“The use of incentive-based programs for weight loss is growing,” wrote Jason Riis, PhD, and colleagues in an accompanying editorial. “This growth is likely to accelerate in the coming years due to a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which allows employers to use a greater proportion of insurance premiums for this purpose. The effectiveness of the programs, at least in the short term, is consistent with insights from psychology and behavioral economics: Proximal and tangible rewards (such as monthly monetary payments) are more motivating than distant and tangible rewards (such as the downstream health benefits of weight loss).”

Authors of the study support the group incentive program with an increased reward (larger than $100) as potentially the most effective. And although such numbers may be steep, the forward dollars spent in incentivizing could save healthcare as a whole from later healthcare costs associated with adverse events cause by weight.

“Because of the high costs of healthcare and lost productivity associated with obesity, employers are seeking solutions. With the high cost (both money and time) of traditional treatments, financial incentive programs could be seen as money well spent,” the editorial ventured.

To view the study in its entirety, click here.