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Have trouble sticking to your diet? Try this

Updated on July 22, 2010

 

Betting on Weight Loss

Have trouble staying on your diet? Try putting your money where your mouth is

I'm not the gambling type — Texas hold 'em, firehouse bingo, and glitzy casinos thrill me about as much as a week-old bologna sandwich. But when a major family reunion loomed recently, the prospect of greeting relatives and old friends and smiling for the camera inspired me to ante up and make a weight-loss bet.

Hoping to lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks, I needed a worthy opponent. I couldn't imagine betting against my women friends — we've always encouraged one another as exercise buddies and comrades ordering lunch salads with dressing on the side. So I asked my husband. Dan and I have kept up a fierce Scrabble rivalry for 18 years, and we wager at the drop of a hat on everything from local political races to how soon a traffic light will turn green. He agreed in seconds, and was taunting me about his own weight-loss prowess within minutes. Game on.

We set weekly goals (1 pound for me, 1 1/2 for Dan — men burn calories more easily because they have more muscle mass), scheduled weigh-ins on Monday mornings, and deliberated over prizes. (Foot rubs and morning coffee in bed won out over cash.) But when the wager began, so did the sabotage. In week 1, Dan brought home my favorite chocolate-covered coconut-cream candy. (I tossed it in the freezer.) I couldn't bring myself to retaliate, but secretly, I strategized. In week 2, I stopped popping popcorn for our family's Sunday movie nights because — I'd learned in week 1 — it boosted my weight the next morning.

There were technical difficulties: Our 11-year-old bathroom scale got trashed by week 3, replaced with an unflappably accurate digital model. There were agonizing defeats, like the week I gained three pounds of utterly unfair water weight. And there was a little good-natured trash talking: "This coffee in bed sure tastes good when you're slim like me...."

Ten weeks later, I had lost 8 pounds. Dan dropped 5. I won! My jeans fit better. My waist was smaller. I loved walking into our family party in my slim black pants and sheer ruffled blouse over a camisole. My final prize? An extra-long foot rub with my favorite lemon-scented balm.

Ah, victory is sweet.

Up the Ante, Drop the Pounds
Diet bets are popping up everywhere — online, in gyms, at weight-loss classes, and as informal wagers among friends, spouses, and coworkers. They're big because they work. A multicenter study of 57 dieters found those who stood to lose money if they didn't succeed in shedding weight were about five times as likely to reach their goal as those with no financial stake in the outcome. Half of the bettors dropped 16 pounds in 16 weeks, compared with just 10.5 percent of the no-wager group. And in a study of more than 200 dieters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, those who were told they'd pocket $14 for every 1 percent of body weight they shed were nearly five and a half times as likely to take off 5 percent of their body weight as participants not offered cash.

Putting money, ego, and bragging rights on the line is a potent formula for keeping up your motivation. "If eating chocolate cake tonight means you'll lose $10 or $50 at your next weigh-in, dessert suddenly isn't very attractive," notes Dean Karlan, Ph.D., a Yale University behavioral economist. After losing 40 pounds in a personal bet with a friend, Karlan went on to found stickk.com, one of the first online weight-loss betting sites. "When there's something big at stake, you can't say, 'Oh, I'll eat less next week. I'll work out longer tomorrow.' You have to stay on track all the time, because doing the wrong thing would be very expensive."

Nobody wants to lose a bet. "More than anything I didn't want to be beaten by my opponents and feel embarrassed," admits Amy Orr, 32, of Brooklyn, who dropped 61 pounds in a series of bets with friends and even her former husband. "I've been on every diet out there — Atkins, Weight Watchers, raw foods — you name it. None worked as well as this."

Wagering on weight loss might even set off feel-good fireworks in the brain. In brain-scan studies at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard researchers found that gambling lit up the same little gray cells activated by morphine and cocaine.

Then there's the accountability factor. "Checking in with somebody every week is definitely going to help you stay on course," says New York City diet expert and registered dietitian Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D. "It's competitive in a playful way."

The extra ka-ching doesn't hurt, either. "Some people are definitely in it to win the money," says wellness coach Lisa Sallin of Thousand Oaks, CA, who runs 12-week healthy-weight-loss challenges. About $25 of each participant's $39 course fee goes into a pot. The winner gets half; second place earns 30 percent; third, 20. And we're not talking pocket change: "The winner in my biggest group dropped 13 percent of his body weight and took home $200," says Sallin.

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