May 1st, 2014

Online tool helps dieters lose weight

A Web-based commercial weight loss program that pairs financial incentives with social influence has shown positive results, according to a recent study conducted by Miriam Hospital researchers.

The findings were published in the February issue of JMIR Serious Games.

Tricia Leahey, Ph.D., assistant professor of research at the hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Program and Brown Medical School, studied nearly 40,000 players of the online game, DietBet over a seven-month period from December 2012 to July 2013.

On DietBet.com, players join a game to lose weight while betting on themselves. They have four weeks to lose at least four percent of their starting weight. “They put up whatever amount of money they want and get to interact with others via something akin to Facebook, where you can share and like things,” Leahey explains.

At the end of the month, all players who have lost at least 4 percent of their weight are deemed “winners,” and split the pool of money that was collected. Leahey notes that the average winner lost 4.9 percent of their weight and won an average of $59. Many players lost about one to two pounds per week.

Each player uses his/her own approach to lose weight whether by exercising more or participating in a structured program like Weight Watchers.

Leahey says that she was prompted to do the study because little research has been done to examine whether or not online social weight loss programs are effective.

Individuals who won the game were more likely to have successful weight loss if they bet more money, shared their progress on Facebook, completed more weigh-ins and engaged in more social interactions with other players, she says.

“Weight losses tended to cluster within games, suggesting that players motivate and influence each other,” Leahey says. “The results conclude that Web sites like DietBet may provide a cost effective solution for people who need to lose weight. It shows that using financial incentives and creating social networks around weight loss have positive results. The more the players interacted and bet, the greater the weight loss.”

Leahey says that future studies will focus on a longer version of the program called DietBetter. This game lasts for six months and is geared toward people who have to lose a great deal more than five or 10 pounds. “It will be interesting to see the effects of very motivating positive social influence.”

She adds that emotional drawbacks for players who were not successful were not measured.

By Susan Gonsalves

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