The city of Dubai is putting an interesting twist on the expression "worth your weight in gold," with a new program that rewards citizens for losing weight. Individual participants get one ounce of gold (equal to about $42) for every kilogram they shed, while families with kids get double that—an attempt to address the United Arab Emirates' high obesity rates among both adults and children.
The incentive program was announced this month in conjunction with Ramadan, a Muslim religious observance that includes a month of fasting. After a similar initiative payed out more than $750,000 last year in gold to adults, it relaunched this year with a focus on children; city officials have cited concerns about fast-food diets and lack of physical activity in schools as reasons for the shift.
This isn't the first time money's been used to motivate people to slim down, of course; several studies have looked at the effectiveness of financial incentives here in the United States—think insurance reimbursements for employees, for example, or Biggest Loser–type competitions within weight-loss groups. There are even websites and apps that allow you to you place bets on your own weight-loss success or gym attendance.
But these programs tend to have mixed results, says Kathryn Kaiser, Ph.D., an instructor in the office of energetics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health; they work well for some people in the short-term, but there's little evidence that they fuel lasting change once the "payments" stop rolling in.
What's even more concerning about Dubai's program is the fact that children under 14 are encouraged to lose weight. In order to earn a reward, each participant must lose at least 2 kilograms, or about 4.4 pounds, over a two-month period. "That's a very aggressive goal for a lot of children, and I'm concerned about the health and mental challenges it might create for them," says Kaiser. "This is an age range of rapid growth, and children are meant to gain weight over time, not lose it."
The program's website does state that children must be overweight or obese to participate, and that parents must sign a pledge to comply with "the right ways to help the child get to the healthy weight target." But it's not clear how well parents will be educated beforehand, or whether they're required to participate in any of the planned workshops and group exercise sessions. Plus, the program is only eight weeks long; the most successful weight-loss interventions—in children and adults—usually take place over months or even years, says Kaiser.
"I appreciate what they're trying to do, but I would hope the government that's offering this program consults with obesity scientists and medical practitioners to develop a better program, if their goal is to really have a significant effect on their population," she says.
One good thing about Dubai's approach? Group incentive programs are often more successful than independent weight-loss efforts, so encouraging families to eat healthfully and stay active together—as the U.S. government's own Let's Move! program does—may be more effective than targeting individuals alone.
The final weigh-in and pay-out for Dubai's "Your Child in Gold" program is September 15; until then, we hope the more than 600 families who've signed up are making smart choices and doing what's best for their overall health—not just the numbers on the scale, or the size of their bank accounts.
What do you think about this pay-to-lose program? Good idea or bad call? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine!