The best worker weight-loss programs add a competitive edge

Study tests two ways to incent weight loss among hospital workers

The creators of "The Biggest Loser" may have been onto something—a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that hospital worker weight-loss programs that offer financial incentives are more effective when they create competition between workers.

For the study, researchers from University of Michigan and the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System examined two incentive programs at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia that involved 105 obese employees. In one program, employees received $100 if they lost at least one pound per week. In the other program, employees were placed into groups of five, and $500 each month were split among group members who met their pound-per-week goal.

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After 24 weeks, the latter group lost nearly three times more weight than the first group—an average of seven pounds more than participants in the individual program.

"People may be more motivated to achieve a particular goal when a particular resource that had been allocated for them is given to someone else if they don't achieve their goal," says lead author Jeffrey Kullgren.

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard Business School professor Jason Riis writes that financial rewards for monthly goals appear to provide "a mechanism to help people make slightly better decisions."

Although the individual incentive program was less effective in terms of average weight loss, it was more cost-effective in terms of dollars spent per kilogram lost, Riis notes.  However, the group incentive ultimately is "more efficient in terms of program capitalization" and what employers will gain from healthier employees (Bronson Gray, HealthDay, 4/2; Fiore, Medpage Today, 4/1; Pittman, Reuters, 4/1).

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