Cash is King for Promoting Weight Loss in the Workplace

Employers are introducing new incentives to help workers shed excess pounds, including vacations, lower insurance premiums and cash prizes for weight loss.

One third of U.S. companies offer financial incentives, or have them in the works, to help their employees trim down and get healthy. The new trend has other businesses taking note.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in this,” Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives, told the Associated Press (AP) recently.

Pecuniary inducements can take a variety of forms. Some businesses dole out cash prizes, while others offer up vacation trips, reduce health insurance premiums, or reimburse the cost of weight loss programs.

At an Ohio hospital chain where the workforce is mostly overweight, executives implemented a program last year that pays staffers to get in step. Employees wear pedometers and the more they walk, the more money they get – up to $500 a year.

The program was a hit: more than $377,000 in cash has been awarded to the nearly 4500 workers who signed up – close to half of the hospital chain’s employees, many of whom are now bragging about the pounds they shed.

Not everyone believes this is the cure all for America’s obesity problem. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the AP, “It’s probably a waste of time.” Although his stance may seem pessimistic, the data indicates he’s right.

Fewer than 20 U.S. studies have examined whether monetary incentives promote weight loss over the long term. Most previous studies were small and lasted only a few months, and there has been no conclusive evidence on how much money it would take to leave a lasting impact for people.

In fact, the largest study to date, which was conducted at Cornell University, had dismal results. After examining seven employer programs, researchers determined the average weight loss was little more than one pound per person.

Even so, many employers still embrace the idea of dieting for dollars in hopes of reducing the impact of lost productivity due to illness and injuries.

Companies “are making best their guesses about what might work and giving it a shot.” University of Minnesota professor Robert Jeffery told the AP.

Since carrying even a few extra pounds can increase a person’s risk of hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease, any program designed to help people achieve a healthy body weight is bound to have a positive impact.

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