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SALT LAKE CITY — A group photo was posted by a friend to my Facebook wall. I was mortified and barely recognized myself. Several weeks later I was asked if I was pregnant — an anatomical impossibility as a male.
In earnest I launched several diet and exercise efforts that were repeat failures. I would inevitably soon succumb to cravings, rationalizing some excuse such as a recent stressor.
I was 265 pounds, with a BMI that classified me as obese. I devised a plan that required the involvement of a willing colleague. We each wrote several signed but undated checks to our manager who served as an independent arbitrator. We each wrote one check for each month. We weighed in at the end of each month. Anyone who failed to meet their goal would have their check for that month distributed to the other participant.
The results were phenomenal and I lost pounds. We had agreed upon a significant sum of money that I refused to lose. At the end of the day, the fear of losing that amount outweighed my unhealthy eating habits.
My coworker switched companies as I was hitting 210 pounds. Within a few weeks my weight had increased significantly. I no longer had a financial motivation to keep me on track.
Steven Driver of the Mayo Clinic confirms the efficacy of financial instruments in achieving diet goals. He stated that "sustained weight loss can be achieved by financial incentives. The financial incentives can improve results, and improve compliance and adherence."
To back up his research, Driver reported the following statistics from a study he performed.
"Study completion rates for the incentive groups were significant compared with the non-incentive groups: 62 percent versus 26 percent," a release about the study states. "In the incentive groups, participants' mean weight loss was 9.08 pounds, compared with 2.34 pounds for the non-incentive groups."
Help from technology
There are a number of online services providing similar financial motivators. They are outlined below for those like myself with diet stick-to-itiveness issues. All are free to register.
These first three rely on a combination of positive and negative financial incentives. A wager is made. If the goal is met, the wager is returned, with additional prize money from those who failed to meet their goal. The negative incentive is additionally present since failing to meet the goals results in a loss of the entire wager.
HealthyWage allows participants to compete within a group or individually. The user can indicate how many pounds they want to lose, how much they want to wager, and how much time they want to complete the goal. Weigh-ins are adjudicated through pictures or videos of the scale that must be uploaded to prevent any possible cheating.
DietBet has more structured plans at one month, six month and twelve month durations. The user is unable to specify how much they want to lose and is required to pick a plan that seems reasonable to their goals. The cash limits for wagers are lower than HealthyWage. Weigh-ins are also adjudicated by the site through photo uploads to prevent cheating.
Pact is the only service that does not track weight. Pact provides a similar infrastructure for enforcing healthier eating and frequent exercise. Pact integrates with the FitBit and a number of free apps such as MapMyRun to ensure participants are meeting agreed upon goals. Pact can even measure how long you are at the gym through the use of smartphone GPS signals. Individuals choose what exercises they want to do and a corresponding app or device to track that exercise. In addition, users decide how much to wager for each day. Healthy eating is enforced through requiring smartphone photos of fruits and vegetables.
Fatbet relies on wagers that may not be monetary. A penalty is agreed upon by all participants of a group, such as singing a song at a Karaoke event or washing the cars of the other group members. Weigh-ins are based on the honor system. The risk is that the honor system may lead to cheating, while the penalties may not be sufficiently motivating.
Each of these services provides different approaches that can be mixed and matched. All of these services typically have ways out to accomodate injuries or illness.
Current I am actively participating on HealthyWager with a $3,000 wager that is sure to help me meet my weight loss goal of dropping below 200 pounds for the first time since I was a high school freshman. Simultaneously I am participating on Pact, where I am fined $50 for each day I fail to log 10,000 steps on my FitBit.
These and other sites provide excellent scientifically proven methods to leverage technology as a fundamental aid along the perennial pursuit for healthy living.
Joseph Irvine is an engineer in Madison, Ala., currently working for the government. He graduated from Utah State University in 2010 and is a recipient of the Young Entrepreneur Award by the National Foundation for Independent Business.