Weight-Loss Wager

Not long ago, a fellow writer told me that the time he lost the most weight was when he bet a friend he could do it. We’d been talking about financial incentives for dieting—in particular about a recent study indicating that paying for lost pounds could help in the fight against obesity.

A team of researchers from the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota combed decades of data and concluded that, when money talks, America walks—with some caveats.

Bettors such as my colleague don’t mind caveats, and there is an above-average acceptance of games of chance here in Las Vegas, which is why Aurora Buffington, a nutrition and health educator for the Southern Nevada Health District, believes the approach has special potential here.

Paying for pounds works, Buffington says, because it offers reinforcement (either negative or positive), rather than punishment, for behavior. Dieting is slow, thankless work. If you shed two pounds in a week, it’s considered good progress, but it doesn’t show on the body. A little cash in your pocket can provide the immediate gratification to make up for that.

Buffington cites two methods in current use: One is the commitment contract, which calls for investing one’s own money, which is then won back by achieving goals. The other is payout programs, or earning outside money by achieving goals. The former works better, Buffington says, because one’s own cash is at stake.

One problem with paying for weight loss is that its effectiveness tends to peter out over time, and people may start to lose less weight or gain pounds back. Adding a lottery system, however, can reduce the gain-back. “People would come in to be weighed every month for 12 months,” Buffington says. “If they lose weight, they would be entered in a lottery for a prize.”

Some monetary weight-loss challenges have already taken off in Las Vegas. In “The Best Weigh to Go,” a program run by the Teachers Health Trust, teams can win $1,000 for dropping pounds. Meanwhile, individuals can choose from many online programs. Buffington recommends Stickk.com (tagline: “Put a contract out on yourself”) and FatBet.net, which urges players to “Bet your ass.”

There’s no better way to lose your ass in Vegas.