In a bid to fight back against Britain’s exploding obesity crisis, a town in Essex is trying a novel approach: it’s going to pay people to lose weight.
Starting in September, Basildon’s Pound-for-Pound pilot project will reward each of its 100 volunteers with a £1 ($1.90) shopping voucher for every pound of weight they shed. Before-and-after photo sessions will document their progress, and the volunteers will get advice on how to best lose weight. At the end of the program, the participants return for a weigh-in, where they can cash in their weight loss for financial gain.
Similar programs have been used successfully in the U.S., but this project is the first of its kind in the U.K., where the adult obesity level is 24 per cent, the highest in Europe. Basildon in particular has an adult obesity rate of just under 26 per cent, the fifth-highest rate in Britain.
A 2008 study conducted by Kevin Volpp and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the new plan may just work. It found that offering financial rewards is “highly effective in inducing initial weight loss.” Study participants who stood to gain financially by losing weight (or lose financially by gaining weight) tended to lose 13 or 14 pounds, compared to four pounds for those with no incentive.
Still, the Pound-for-Pound program has drawn some criticism. John Cawley, an associate professor who studies health economics at Cornell University, worries that incentivising weight loss without regular follow-up could encourage unsustainable dieting. The challenge is to both attain initial weight loss and to maintain that loss over a longer period of time, he says. He adds that rewarding participants with food vouchers—even though they can only be used for healthy food—is “incongruous with the very idea of motivating people to lose weight.”
The Pound-for-Pound program has 35 volunteers so far. If it’s successful, it could be rolled out across the country.