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Weight loss for a big prize - is it a gimmick?

Allan Foster
Overall, so far in this weight-loss contest, 1,400 contestants in Pierce County lost more than 15,000 pounds.

If you’ve ever thought about losing weight, it helps to have a prize, as 1,400 people in Pierce County can tell you. They’re in a contest that ends this week – similar to TV’s Biggest Loser reality show – with winners getting a $10,000 prize.

It may seem like a gimmick. But scientists say it has a solid foundation.

“The evidence suggests that prizes work to improve weight loss itself,” particularly larger prizes and prizes provided immediately upon weight loss, says Dr. Scott Halpern, an MD and epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also studies behavioral economics.

"People want to lose weight, and they just need some motivation to get them over the initial hurdles," he says.

In Pierce County’s contest, participants had to form a five-person team and pay a $60 entry fee. Then each group tried to lose the largest percentage of their starting weight ... in three-months.

So, the contest had two aspects that strengthen each other – a cash prize and a built-in support group.

“The biggest piece to this that I liked was that it wasn’t an individual contest. The core of the program was a team aspect,” says Claire Kjelld a dietician at Multicare, a Tacoma-based medical system. Multicare sponsored the contest and Kjelld was in charge of all the “weigh-ins” for participants.

Joining a team for support

Team support really helped Lisa Cisneros, who entered the contest with four other women. They all work for Tacoma Public Schools, but they were only casual acquaintances.  

“I wanted to win. I wanted the money, and I wasn’t going to let my team down, and that's what my motive was at the beginning,” she says.

Over time, it was clear they were not going to win, but her team loyalty kept her going:

“When you say, 'Okay, there's other people depending on you,' for some reason, you step up to the plate and continue to do it."

Cisneros lost 22 pounds, and she says she started to enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

Overall, the 1,400 contestants in Pierce County lost more than 15,000 pounds, although the numbers are still being tabulated, according to Kjelld. That works out to about 11 pounds on average. 

The contest is run by an outside company called HealthyWage, which sets up similar contests around the country. 

Here’s the catch – weight regained

Once the prizes go away, most people regain the weight, says Dr. Halpern, typically within six-to-12 months.

His research group is looking for ways to make behavioral changes last. One idea is “a lottery that you might win each day, and that could be for an indefinite period.

"But how long do you need it? We don’t know.”

In the HealthyWage contests, participants can pay a little extra and potentially win back $100 after one year, if they can lose a certain amount of weight.

Incentives work more easily for smoking, which is easier to maintain once you’ve quit, says Halpern. Maintaining weight, on the other hand, is more similar to staying on a medication for the rest of your life. It’s good to start, and it’s good to keep trying.

For now, the slimmer contestants will show up at Saturday’s annual Sound To Narrows run near Point Defiance, in Tacoma, where the winning team will be announced.

Image Credit: Allan Foster / Flickr

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.