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Companies "are making best their guesses about what might work and giving it a shot," said Robert Jeffery, a University of Minnesota professor. He's been experimenting with financial incentives and weight loss since the 1970s and is perhaps the most veteran researcher in the field.
If companies asked the experts, they might be counseled to make their incentives more dramatic -- more cash or a bigger penalty in premium costs.
Psychologists say people are more motivated by the risk of losing their own money than by a chance they'll win somebody else's. Applying that idea to weight loss, some studies have set up refundable bond systems: Volunteers sign a contract agreeing to lose a certain amount of weight by a certain date or they forfeit their deposited money.
One of the seven companies in the Cornell study offered a refundable bond option to employees. Its average weight loss was nearly 4 pounds. That doesn't sound like a lot but it's almost twice as much as the average weight loss at companies that paid quarterly rewards.
A 2008 University of Pennsylvania study found that after 16 weeks people who put their own money on the line lost about a pound more, on average, than people who got cash from others.
Besides employers, a few companies market refundable bond contracts to people trying to lose weight. Using a twist of black humor, a company called StickK.com, sends the forfeited money from those who fail to an organization the customer despises.
"The most popular is the George W. Bush Presidential Library," said Sam Espinosa, a company spokesman. "Last year, we sent $6,000 to them."
Such programs are voluntary. But critics say that while they may work for a few very motivated people, they may not be effective for most.
Some employers worry that if they go too far, it may seem coercive and even grounds for a lawsuit. "They're very nervous about doing anything that might seem invasive," said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health.
Many employers believe the wisest approach is to use financial incentives as just one facet of a broader effort to create a culture that makes it harder to be lazy and gluttonous.
Kevin Acocella illustrates their point.
Acocella, a 35-year-old IBM marketing manager, was 5-feet-9 and a chunky 185 when he decided two years ago to enroll in the company's Web-based fitness program.
IBM's worksite wellness program is often called a model, with roughly half of the work force earning at least $150 a year for taking part. But Acocella failed twice.
The money got his attention. But the problem, he said, was the culture he was in. "In New York City it was, 'What restaurant can we go to, or what bar can we go to?'"
Early this year, Acocella moved to the IBM office in San Jose, Calif. "Here it's, 'What activity can you do, and what can you go see, and how can we figure out a way to not take a car there?'" he said.
Acocella had lost 9 pounds in the three months he's been there. He recently signed up for the IBM reward program again, but this time it's incidental to his new active lifestyle.
"The real issue was getting myself in a program I could actually do and could keep up with. I don't think those things swing on a dollar," he said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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