ATLANTA, Georgia (AP) — How much money would it take to get American workers to lose some serious weight? $100? $500?
Many employers in the United States are betting they can find that 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 work force 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 earn 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 already have been paid out, and many workers tell of weight loss and a sudden need for slimmer clothes.
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 finacial incentives on weight loss. Most of those studies were small and did not 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.
Sure, there are grounds for optimism. Smaller experiments report some success. Other studies have shown promising results against tobacco. One study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, co-authored by Volpp, found that cash rewards of a few hundred dollars nearly tripled quit-smoking rates.
One problem: “Food is more difficult than tobacco,” said Steven Kelder, an epidemiology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
While cigarettes can be addictive, people do not need to smoke to live, and advertising and clean-air restrictions curb tobacco's presence. People must eat, however, and sugary drinks and fatty snacks are everywhere, Kelder and others said.
Health officials lament that more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight and one-third obese, and they lecture on fat's role in deaths from diabetes, heart disease and other conditions.