Does giving people cash actually motivate them to lose weight?


From workplace health initiatives that reward employees if they lose weight to apps that will pay you if you shed pounds, there’s several ways you can earn a little cash while losing weight.

But can a fatter wallet actually incentivize you to slim down your waistline? And, should workplace wellness programs be putting money on the line in an effort to improve employees’ health, thus potentially driving down healthcare expenses?

We hate to go all Sarah Koenig in season 1 of “Serial” on you, but the answer isn’t totally clear and, in fact, studies really tend to conflict one another on this topic.

Here’s what research has to say on the correlation between financial and fitness gains.

Flickr | 401(K) 2013
Flickr | 401(K) 2013

People respond best when their reward is threatened

A study last year from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine found that financial incentives intended to increase physical activity were most effective when the rewards were put at risk of being lost.

Here’s how they figured that out.

For the study, 281 obese or overweight adults were tasked with reaching 7,000 steps per day over a 26-week period.

For the first 13 weeks, participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • the control group, where there were no financial incentives
  • the gain incentive group that received $1.40 for every day they met the goal, which could translate to $42 per month
  • the lottery incentive group that was offered entry into a daily lottery with a possible prize that averaged $1.40 each day the goal was achieved
  • and, finally, the loss incentive group, which gave $42 to participants at the start of the month, and took $1.40 away each day they didn’t achieve the goal.

(In the second half of the study, participants received feedback on their performance — but there were no incentives offered).

The results? Offering $1.40 each day the goal is achieved or offering a shot at the lottery were no more effective than offering no reward at all. In these groups, participants achieved the daily goal approximately 30 to 35 percent of the time, the study found.

But the participants who risked losing their reward were much more serious about hitting their daily 7,000 step goal. They achieved their goal about 45 percent of the time, translating to an almost 50 percent increase over the control group.

Getty Images | Dave Kotinsky

People lose more weight when they bet on their weight loss

You may have noticed there’s a lot of apps out there that will wager on your weight loss or fitness goals. (If you want to give it a try, check out apps like Pact or DietBet.)

A 2013 study from the Mayo Clinic conducted a year-long weight loss study and found that earning $20 to lose weight could be enough to push the scale in the right direction.

Two groups were tasked with dropping 4 pounds per month.

  • One group was financially incentivized: if they hit their goal, they were $20 richer. But if they didn’t, they had to put $20 in the payout pot.
  • The other group didn’t have any financial incentives.

Turns out, the cash reward (or fear of having to pay out) worked because those who had financial incentives lost an average of 9.08 pounds. Their peers in the group with no financial incentive lost, on average, 2.34 pounds.

Getty Images | Guido De Bortoli
Getty Images | Guido De Bortoli

Actually, money might not make you hit the gym

The first two studies sound promising for your pectorals, right? But, the latest study found that the potential of earning an Amazon gift card didn’t actually motivate people to hit the gym much more often.

The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study that included 836 new members at a gym in the Midwest.

Participants were divided into four groups.

The first was the control group that received a $30 Amazon gift card after six weeks, no matter what. The other groups were rewarded for going to the gym at least nine times in the first six weeks of memberships—but the rewards differed. They were a $30 Amazon gift card, a $60 Amazon gift card and an item of their choosing on Amazon worth $30.

The study found, though, that participants who were incentivized with rewards only made .14 more visits to the gym on average than those in the control group, according to Business Insider.

Flickr | Sole Treadmill

So, what really motivates people to lose weight and get fit?

Cash aside, what really causes people to workout and move toward their health goals?

Friendly competition might do the trick, according to a 2016 study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Or, you might want to try to curate a kick-butt playlist. Numerous studies have found that music helps people work out harder and longer, and stay more positive throughout their exercise regimen.

Getty Images | Charlie Crowhurst

[H/t: Glamour, Men’s Fitness and Business Insider]

About the Author

Brittany Anas

Brittany has contributed to publications including Men's Journal, Forbes, Women's Health, American Way, TripSavvy, Eat This, Not That!, Apartment Therapy, Denver Life Magazine, 5280, Livability, The Denver Post, Simplemost, USA Today Travel Tips, Make it Better, AAA publications, Reader's Digest, Discover Life and more. More.

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