Kelsey B., 31, could never find a diet that stuck. She rebelled against every eating plan she tried—she just couldn’t hold herself accountable. So when she set out to lose 50 pounds after having a baby in the fall of 2016, she bet $700 that she’d do it, through the app HealthyWage. If she lost the weight within nine months, she’d get back her $700—plus an extra $800 in rewards. By the fall of 2017, she’d succeeded, and then some.
“I’m apparently highly motivated by money!” Kelsey tells Glamour.
Plunking down her own cash made it feel like she had more skin in the game, while the promise of prize money at the end made it easier to treat herself along the way. “Every time I lost 10 pounds, I’d go get a massage,” says the Oregon-based stay-at-home mom. “They’re not cheap, so I’d think, OK, this is some of the money I’m going to win…. I always thought of it as my money, so there was no possibility of losing it.”
Intrigued? You’re not alone. HealthyWage counts over 750,000 users since it launched in 2009, while the community-based weight-loss app DietBet has nearly 650,000 users competing against friends or strangers. Other apps reward users’ fitness achievements rather than counting pounds: StepBet operates based on daily step goals, and RunBet tracks miles. Still others, like Wellcoin and FitCoin, offer cryptocurrency or swag in exchange for healthy food and fitness choices. Some kinks are still being worked out in this market—one app shut down last year after the FTC found it owed users more than a million dollars, as Gizmodo reported in September. But the ones that are still around are as easy to join as buying a lottery ticket, and they seemingly scratch that same itch.
DietBet operates thusly: Entry costs between $10 and $100, and each competition has a set goal for everyone who’s playing (to lose four percent of your weight in four weeks; or maintain your weight for a full year, e.g.). Anyone who meets the goal will split the pot less the company’s fees (which range from 10 to 25 percent). If all participants succeed, everyone gets their money back. Anyone who falls short? They have just donated to the cause.
“There’s a little more accountability [betting with friends],” says Susan B., a 38-year-old Indianapolis resident. She and 15 friends teamed up to make a DietBet, each putting $10 into the pot. If she lost 4 percent of her body weight in four weeks, she’d take home some of the money. “We have a Twitter DM going, so everyone’s talking about their struggles. If it were just myself, I don’t think [losing money] is enough motivation.”
Maybe that’s a question of how much is on the line.
With HealthyWage, which Kelsey used, the stakes are higher. The minimum investment is $100, and the maximum prize is $10,000. To start, users make a verification video while standing on a scale, a ritual they’ll repeat at the end to prove they either met or failed to meet their goal. If it’s the former, they rake in a nice chunk of change (the average win is $1,300). The latter? They can extend their time period to keep trying or take the hit. Fold ‘em and walk away, in other words. Kelsey’s $800 earnings—and the threat of losing her $700 deposit—were just enough to hook her. “I love saving money, and I like to make it too,” she says. “That part was really attractive.”
David Roddenberry, cofounder of HealthyWage says the company keeps 25 cents on every dollar they bring in, and people do keep coming back. “Participants find value from the supportive community, coaching, and infrastructure, so they will frequently try again,” he says. But also, many people lose—a risk that he says can be a real motivator. And research backs him up.
Research from the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon back in 2008 put this theory to the test, dividing weight loss candidates into three groups. One group stood to earn money if they dropped pounds; a second group had to deposit money, which they’d lose if they didn’t lose weight but recoup and then some if they did. There was no financial incentive for the third group. The deposit makers reported the largest average weight loss, trailed closely by the lottery-based cluster. The control group, with no dough on the line, showed the least change. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of these apps hit the market the very next year.
Of course, someone can make healthy choices and gain weight, or lose several pounds one week and none the next. Turning this into a game, or a side hustle, can overlook the nuances of living in a body that doesn’t always do as told—to say nothing of the bodies for whom weight loss isn’t a goal to begin with, or those for whom it’s a problematic and triggering one. The apps’ rules prohibit going to extreme lengths to lose weight, but since results are self-reported, those regulations are nearly impossible to enforce.
“I just tried to pace myself along the way and not have to starve myself in the last two weeks,” Kelsey says, of weighing in as she went. Others who aren’t so careful might find themselves stuck between losing money or crash-dieting to beat the clock. That’s worrisome to Chicago-based registered dietitian Christy Brissette, who says she’s seen growing interest in this kind of program.
“I have a few clients who’ve tried them before,” she says. “I think they can be helpful with certain personalities—people who are competitive, or people who feel like they need motivation.” But because these games rely so heavily on social media, the stakes can feel too high if things aren’t going according to plan.
“It can become too anxiety-provoking,” says Brissette. “I could be tweeting that I lost five pounds this week, and someone could see that and say, ‘Well, I only lost one pound,’ and they’re making all the right choices but they feel let down.” Her advice? Stick with programs and formulas that focus on healthy choices, like Urban Monk Nutrition rather than a number.
Susan hasn’t experienced that letdown yet. She just started a second bet after crushing her goal the first time and pocketing a small chunk of change. “Six of us met the goal we set, so at the end of it I won $18,” she says. The rest of her pals were out $10—a loss,but not enough to keep them from playing again.
“You’re not exactly making a living working the DietBet system, but the contest does add a little fuel to the fire,” she says.