Let me be clear: I'm not a gambler. Sure, I've reluctantly joined in on office Super Bowl square pools and Oscar ballots because it was easier than saying "no," but as a general rule, I don't gamble. Even when the lottery recently hit a billion dollars, I didn't buy a single ticket. Casinos make my palms sweat. But somehow, when I heard about an app that involved throwing down money on your weight-loss goals, it struck a chord.
Up until this point, my attempts at weight loss consisted of throwing things at the wall and seeing what stuck (spoiler alert: Nothing did). In an effort to lose 40 pounds, I counted calories, joined Facebook groups, met with nutritionists, tried cleanses and juice fasts, ordered healthy meal kits, joined a gym, started the Atkins Diet (because any diet where you can eat bacon is a diet I'll try), and even made an appearance on Dr. Oz in an episode where I test-drove a nutritionist-directed diet plan. Nope. Nothing. Nada.
Then, in true twenty-teens form, I found an app.
After hearing from a friend about DietBet, an app developed by software company Waybetter, I went out on a digital limb and downloaded it.
I was kind of late to the game—DietBet launched in 2013 and has hosted more than 500,000 players in 90 countries. At the most basic level, it works like this: A challenge can be hosted by anyone, from your next-door neighbor to Jillian Michaels—their job is to recruit players and encourage them throughout the experience. Players bet $40 they can lose four percent of their body weight in four weeks. Weigh-ins and photo submissions track each player's progress, and at the end of the month, each winner receives their money back and splits the pot made up from those that lost their bet, minus Waybetter's 15 percent cut.
Sounds like there has to be a catch, right? Well, maybe not: To date, DietBet users have lost a combined total weight of 5 million pounds and have received more than $21 million in payouts.
So I tried putting my money where my juice-cleansed mouth is.
My first DietBet challenge, called Fat Girl Fed Up's Summer Vacation Comeback, was hosted by 28-year-old Instagram-sensation Lexi Reed, who's lost an impressive 312 pounds through diet and exercise over the past two years. With her leadership and the daily social support from the community aspect of the app, it ended up being just the type of accountability I needed. I actually wound up losing the contest by two measly ounces (ugh) but still felt like a winner having lost 6.5 pounds in a month.
My eyes were opened to a whole new world of dieting, and DietBet was just the beginning.
Hooked, I turned to another Waybetter app, StepBet, that syncs to your smartphone or fitness tracker and uses your step history to assign goals. Hit your step goals or you risk ... buh nuh nuh... elimination.
For someone who has struggled to stay interested in any type of diet or exercise, it turns out that a little friendly competition—and a financial incentive—were just what I needed. After three StepBet games, I've lost 16 pounds, walked more than 1.6 million steps, and won a total of $150 (along with a $25 Amazon gift card). And the best part? It's been fun.
And I'm not the only one who benefits from financial incentives by a long shot.
Multiple studies have found that incentivizing weight loss with cash money leads to actual results. As one study in Canada observed, most people know what they need to do to lose weight—they just need a real (preferably green) reason to actually do it.
StepBet participant Randino H. says he's more motivated by the threat of losing than the weight loss itself. "When I'm not in a game, I don't exercise at all. When I am in a game, I exercise six days a week—I'm not willing to lose money for being lazy!"
Illinois mom Nicky Crete learned about another community-based betting program, Healthy Wage, and tried it while she was home caring for her son as a way to earn additional income. Wagering $20 a month for a year that she could lose 30 pounds, Crete lost the weight and gained $474.
But dollar signs aside, Crete, who has also completed four StepBet games—says she keeps coming back not for the money, but for the supportive community. "Oddly enough, I do feel some of us actually get to know each other a little, or at least support each other's ups and downs. It's the accountability to ourselves and each other, not the $10 or so we're going to make."
Of course, it's all fun and games... until it isn't.
Like any diet program, there are plenty of opportunities for backfire. "I would be careful of doing four-week challenges because the games are so short that it can lead to yo-yo dieting," Crete warns. "It's easy to be good for six weeks then binge, and that isn't healthy."
But the way I see it, betting on yourself is more reliable than a run at the roulette table. If you're looking to lose weight, you feel motivated by money (and have a healthy relationship with betting), maybe throwing down a few dollars is just what you need to stay focused. I'm now 16 pounds lighter, and my pockets are slightly heavier—I'd say it's working for me.
Jenny Powers is a born and bred New Yorker with a knack for uncovering fascinating true stories and staying on top of trends. Check out more of her work here.