More Employees Dieting for Cash

By Mike Stobbe, AP Medical Writer

ATLANTA (AP) — How much money would it take to get you to lose some serious weight? $100? $500?

Many employers are betting they can find your price. At least a third of U.S. companies offer financial incentives, or are planning to introduce them, to get their employees to lose weight or get healthier in other ways.

"There's been an explosion of interest in this," said Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Incentives.

Take OhioHealth, a hospital chain whose workforce is mostly overweight. The company last year embarked on a program that paid employees to wear pedometers and get paid for walking. The more they walk, the more they win — up to $500 a year.

Anecdotal success stories are everywhere. Half of the 9,000 employees at the chain's five main hospitals signed up, more than $377,000 in rewards have already been paid out, and many workers tell of weight loss and a sudden need for slimmer clothes.

But does will this kind of effort really put a permanent dent in American's seemingly intractable obesity problem? Not likely.

"It's probably a waste of time," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Brownell's assessment is harsher than most. But the science seems to back him up.

Only about 15 to 20 U.S. studies have tried to evaluate the effect of financial incentives on weight loss. Most of those studies were small and didn't look at whether such measures worked beyond a few months. None could make conclusions about how much money it takes to make a lasting difference for most people.

Perhaps the largest effort to date was an observational study by Cornell University. It looked at seven employer programs and the results were depressing: The average weight loss in most was little more than a pound.

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