Thanks to a slew of mobile apps designed to help people try it, the idea of betting on weight loss or other fitness goals is something of a hot topic. If you do even a moderate amount of research on it you’ll quickly discover that it’s a polarizing topic as well. This, however, seems to be due to the fact that much of the actual data about fitness betting’s effectiveness pertains to studies in workplaces. These don’t always yield positive results.
The main study cited separated employees into four different groups, challenging everybody to lose five percent body weight. Three groups had financial incentives worth about $550, and the fourth group had no incentive – and in the end, there was little difference in results. Rather than chalking this up as a victory for those who say financial incentives don’t work, however, we can look into why in this specific case they might not have. For instance, one theory is that bundling the financial reward into an insurance premium rather than turning it into a bonus, made that reward less tangible and ultimately less impactful. It’s a simplistic analysis, but it also makes a great deal of sense.
Unfortunately this single study has led to a lot of articles that make it sound as if it’s been proven beyond doubt that betting on fitness doesn’t work. This conclusion quickly breaks down when you start looking for less structured examples. Indeed, in some cases you can find fairly extreme effectiveness. One man in the UK won £5,000 when he came out on top in his own weight loss bet, dropping 100 pounds in the space of a year (and having failed a similar bet previously). As with the negative workplace study, this doesn’t prove anything definitively – but it does show that financial incentives can have an incredible effect.
The logical question that follows conflicting examples like these is simple: what explains the difference? We can’t answer that definitively, but a few quotes from one Jamie Rosen might speak to the core factor. Rosen is the founder and CEO of DietBet (one of the aforementioned apps or programs facilitating incentivized wellness), and was quoted in an article saying people like the idea of making money, but more importantly they hate the idea of losing money Betting on fitness, as he sees it, brings out people’s competitive sides and adds a determination that has nothing to do with dropping pounds or meeting a weight goal specifically. In fact it doesn’t even directly have much to do with money. It’s about winning, and not losing.
That’s not to say it works for everybody, but it is to suggest that finding your own way to bet on weight loss is probably going to have a better shot at working out than going through any kind of workplace incentive program. In studies like the one noted above, there isn’t actually anything on the line; losing just maintains the status quo, while winning yields a bonus. With more of a betting situation, you actually stand to lose money, and in the process be proven wrong about something. It’s a subtle difference, but one that can mean all the motivation in the world.