A study conducted by researchers from RTI International, a leading research institute, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that moderate financial incentives can promote employee weight loss.
The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, examined the impact of monetary rewards on weight loss in the absence of a structured weight-loss program.
For the first 3 months of the study, more than 200 participants were randomly assigned to receive either no money, $7 per percentage point of weight lost or $14 per percentage point of weight lost. Researchers found that the larger financial incentive resulted in the greatest short-term weight loss. At 3 months, participants with no financial incentive lost 2 pounds, those in the $7 group lost about 3 pounds, and those in the $14 group lost nearly 5 pounds. The participants in the $14 group were five and a half times more likely than those in the no-incentive group to lose 5 percent of their body weight, a point where weight loss has clinically important health benefits.
Overall, 67 percent of participants lost some weight. Between baseline and 6 months, when the financial gains were equalized, weight losses were similar across groups.
A previous RTI study found the annual costs of obesity-attributable medical expenses and absenteeism range from $400 to more than $2,000 per obese employee, suggesting that modest financial incentives may reduce weight and, if sustainable, may improve the financial health of the company.
“Financial incentives tied directly to weight loss are an attractive strategy from an employer's perspective because they require no start-up costs and employees receive the incentive only if they achieve the targeted weight loss goal,” said Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D. director of RTI's Public Health Economics Program and the study's lead author. “Employees may also prefer incentive-based programs that provide the resources and flexibility to improve their health without being tied to the small menu of options that may be offered by the employer.”
To encourage healthy weight loss, participants were not compensated for weight loss greater than 10 percent of their baseline weight.
According to Finkelstein, this study was a preliminary step for two larger studies currently underway. These studies examine various weight loss supports employers may offer, including financial incentives, web-based weight loss programs and environmental policies and supports. Results from these studies will help determine the most effective and cost-effective approaches for worksite-based weight loss programs, he said.