There's an old saying that "virtue is its own reward." That's nice, but a lot of Americans also like rewards they can wear or ride or spend.

Even health insurance companies realize this, and they're now offering prizes to their customers who shape up and slim down....get healthier, in other words. The insurance companies are borrowing some of the tricks of a television game show like Jeopardy, where contestants win prizes if they answer questions correctly. Of course, when health care companies offer rewards, there's no genial studio buzzers or flashing lights. But there are lots of great prizes -- not for answering questions, but for healthier lifestyles.

PacifiCare of California, for instance, will hand you $100 cash if you complete a wellness program. If you quit smoking or finish a weight-loss class, you win points that add up and turn into free or discounted merchandise. The company calls it a "reciprocal" program -- you get something, it gets something. You love contests and rewards...the company will give you some if you get in shape. What the insurance company gets back is fewer claims and less money paid out to sick people. One insurer tells its members that if they work really hard -- say, run the treadmill faithfully -- they can win . . . a treadmill! Or a mountain bike. Expensive prizes that, in turn, make them even healthier.

That is, if they don't hurt themselves exercising!