Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Incentives and weight loss

In the post below, I noted that keeping in shape is easier when you have benchmarks. Benchmarks simply provide an incentive. For me, that incentive is simply a predetermined task that allows me to measure my accomplishments. Pride, in other words.

Interestingly, the Freakonomics Blog has this guest post by Ian Ayres about incentives and weight loss. Mr. Ayers notes that commercial weight loss programs (Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers and Zone) aren't all that effective for keeping weight off for over a year. He came up with a solution:

In the last decade, I’ve yoyo-ed several times. I’d take off a bunch a weight, but by the end of the year I’d put it all back on plus a little extra.

Until this last year, when I did something different. As described in this L.A. Times op-ed, I put $500 each week on safely losing and keeping off my extra weight...


I originally had to lose a pound a week (or else lose money). Then I had to keep my weight below my contractual target of 185 pounds.

In contrast to Weight Watchers, which can cost about $500 a year and helps you lose on average 6 or 7 lbs (about 3 percent of your initial weight), I put $500 at risk each week. In equilibrium, I’ve lost 25 pounds (12 percent of my pre-diet body weight) and so far it has cost me nothing.

Based on this principle, Mr. Ayers created StickK.com, a website on which you enter into a commitment contract to do anything from lose weight to quit smoking to reconnect with old friends. The site essentially allows you to place a financial wager on weather or not you achieve your goal. If you accomplish your goal, you get your money back. If you don’t, your money goes to charity or to someone you’ve designated in advance.

Here's where it gets intriguing to me. If I have to pay $500 if I skip my workout today, I probably won't skip it. But if that money is going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the Red Cross, it wouldn't really be the end of the world. But what if the money would go to an organization I hate? Think of the possibilities. If you're a Democrat, would you even consider lighting up a cig if it meant that $500 of your money would go to Mike Huckabee's campaign? If you're an atheist, would you consider having a doughnut if you had to lose a pound or donate $500 to your local archdiocese? If you're a Michigan grad, wouldn't it be easier for you exercise every day if missing a day meant a substantial donation to Ohio State University?

What goals do you want to accomplish, and what organization do you find objectionable enough that a donation to said organization would help you accomplish your goals?

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