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Study: Financial incentives to lose weight can work

If your employer offered you money to lose weight, would you be more inclined to get healthy?

Many employers are beginning to take notice of the rising cost of obesity in the workplace—such as higher job absenteeism and higher health care costs for employees—and now they are offering incentives to get workers to shed off the pounds.

It’s an issue that Cornell health economist John Cawley decided he wanted to look into. In a new study published in the Journal of Health Economics, Cawley and researchers analyzed more than 2,500 at 24 worksites across the country to see if employees responded to the incentives.

What he found surprised him.

“The majority of people in the program dropped out,” Cawley said. “Even though people were being offered money to do what they wanted to do anyway which is lose weight, we still see a majority of people dropping out by the end of the year, and that’s pretty striking.”

Cawley says that people who tended to put their own money on the line were less likely to drop out. It’s a phenomenon called “loss aversion,” which makes people work harder to get their own money back on top of additional rewards.

Cawley says that ultimately for such programs to be successful, employers and health care providers need to find ways to keep employees motivated.

“That’s definitely a lesson people should come away with,” he said. “A lot of attention should be paid to try to find ways to keep people involved with these types of programs.”

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