A few years ago, OhioHealth, a hospital chain, decided to help its overweight employees slim down and lead a healthier life style.
It offered cash to employees who walked every day and stayed active. So far, they've seen positive results.
A few months after having her first baby, OhioHealth employee Amy Rodock had a physical checkup.
"I was at one of our local hospitals," she says. "They said I was obese. Working for a health care system, I just don't like that word."
To get rid of the extra weight, Rodock joined her company's new wellness program. She was given a pedometer - which measured how far she walked - and she started walking each day with a small group of her colleagues.
"We have about three or four of us that lace up our tennis shoes at our lunch hour, and we walk for 30 minutes every day," she says. "And in the evening, I usually run or walk for three or four miles a day."
The result of her daily physical routine has been amazing.
"I started on January 2 or 3, right after New Years," she recalls. "I have lost a total of 41 pounds [18 kg]. I feel amazing, stronger and more energy. I feel better about taking care of my baby and family and I feel confident."
Lose more, earn more
On top of all those physical benefits, Rodock got a cash award for walking and losing weight.
And the more she walks, the more she wins. "I'm up to $375 so far," she says.
OhioHealth Wellness spokeswoman Lisa Meddock says half of the 9,000 employees at the company's five hospitals have signed up for the incentive program since it began in 2006.
More than $377,000 in rewards has been paid out. It all starts with that free pedometer participants receive by mail.
"It's a really smart little pedometer. It comes with a USB cord [to connect it to your computer]," says Meddock. "And it downloads your steps straight from your pedometer onto your personalized web site so you can track your progress whenever you download your steps. The more steps you take, the higher level you reach. There are five different levels. And then you get more money as you reach the different levels. Once you reach the 5th level, you can earn up to $500."
Meddock says they try to make losing weight fun as well as lucrative.
"One of the things that we do with the program is we have challenges," she says. "So I can challenge somebody and they can challenge me just on an on-going basis. You get bonus points if you do that at least once a year. We have corporate challenges where everybody who has signed up gets put on a team at random, so you get to meet new people and try and succeed. If your team reaches a goal, you get points for that. If you individually reach a goal, you get points for that. So it really makes it more exciting."
A growing number of U.S. companies are implementing such incentive oriented programs, either to help employees quit smoking or lose weight.
Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Incentives, says these programs make it easier to take that first step to change.
"There is a tendency - when it comes to changing behavior in realms where behavior change is difficult - to always favor putting it off until the future," he says. "And what incentive programs do is make it more favorable for you to overcome that tendency to procrastinate doing something now."
Volpp says incentive programs to help people stop smoking seem to work better than those focused on losing weight.
"Smoking is easier than obesity because the way the environment has evolved in the United States really helps reinforce the decision not to smoke," he says. "But there are all sorts of stimuli for people to eat, which is very hard to combat."
Volpp says more studies are needed to measure the real impact of incentive programs on obesity.
"I don't think at this point there is evidence that that can be done in a consistent way because people do tend to regain weight," he says. "So it's very much an area where there is potential for this to be very helpful, but still there is still a lot of work to be done to figure how to best do that."
Different approaches to wellness
He suggests incentive programs work best as part of a broader approach to wellness.
"I think the ideal strategy is one that combines a number of ways to create a culture of wellness, in which people are encouraged to exercise and eat healthy," he says. "I think adding rewards to that mix is useful. But you have to be thoughtful about how that's done. I don't think people should assume that just creating a reward program that's tied to obesity is inherently going to be successful. I think it needs to be very carefully designed, and even then is only likely to be successful in a corporate environment in which there is a lot of focusing on better health."
Many workplaces have already introduced that mix.
OhioHeath's Lisa Meddock says through a variety of programs that offer nutritional advice, free physical checkups and other wellness services, her company is constantly encouraging its employees to develop healthy habits and make healthy choices on a daily basis.