By Helena Oliviero The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Sue Johnston's weight loss journey started in late 2013. First she shed 7 pounds on her own, then another 45 using Weight Watchers. She still had pounds to go, though.
So she upped the ante with a weight loss bet.
Johnston joined DietBet, an online game to lose weight. She bet on herself, and, like other players, had four weeks to lose a targeted amount.
Here's how the year-old game works: Lose at least 4 percent of your body weight in four weeks and you are deemed a "winner." You split the pool of money collected at the start of the game (minus a 10 to 25 percent cut that goes to DietBet). Fall short of the 4 percent and you lose the money you put into the jackpot.
To verify weight loss, players must snap photographs of themselves -- on scales -- at the start and end of the game and send them to DietBet referees.
Diet bets are sprouting everywhere -- online, the gym, at work, even in friendly wagers between friends and spouses. Experts say having financial skin in the game can be effective in the short run, though some worry that, as with all diets, the hard part is making the results stick.
Johnston, 59, of Cumming, quickly discovered she liked the idea of winning money and losing weight at the same time. That really put her money where her mouth is.
"Once, I got on the scale and I was a half of a pound from my goal, and I had 48 hours, and I was really, really careful of what I ate the next couple days and then I got down to exactly where I needed to be to win the bet," said Johnston.
Her first bet was for $10 -- and she got a $22 payout.
By November of last year, Johnston had lost 89 pounds with DietBet. All told, she placed 16 bets and won every time. She tossed $395 in the jackpots and walked away with $667. She used the winnings to splurge on new (and smaller) sweaters, new shoes, and manicures.
A string of small studies suggest dieting for dollars can be effective. In a Mayo Clinic study, 100 Mayo employees and their relatives who were obese were asked to lose four pounds a month and weighed every month for a year.
Some received $20 a month if they reached their goal; others were penalized $20 if they failed to meet their targets, and a third group didn't receive any financial incentives either way. Sixty two percent of those offered cash bonuses lost weight. Among those with no cash incentive, 26 percent met their goal.
Other studies suggest money works only in the short term.
A 2011 paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, titled "Financial Incentives for Extended Weight Loss," found while financial incentives can be a powerful incentive to get people to lose weight, once they are removed, people tend to revert to old habits and regain the weight.
Dr. Arvinpal Singh, medical director of the Emory Bariatric Center, said money's effectiveness hinges on each person's approach to the game.
"If you are doing it to jump start weight loss, and in the context of making healthy lifestyle changes, by all means, money can be a nice tool," he said. "But if it is used to make a quick buck and the intent is manipulated by doing crash diets, it can dangerous and lead to greater weight gain."
Kristen Smith, a registered dietician for WellStar Comprehensive Bariatric Services program, said people who want to gamble their way to skinny jeans should also devise a transition plan that includes putting in place support services after the betting has ended.
David Dean, who heads personal training at Alpharetta Life Time fitness center, said his gym uses financial rewards as the hook for a 13-week program that also weaves together weekly weigh-ins, workshops on nutrition, field trips to Whole Foods and a sampling of exercise programs.
"It's the carrot dangled out there to get them signed up," said Dean. "At the end of the 13-week program, you've got the 99 out of 100 people who don't win the money and they are like, 'forget about the money. It isn't about the money.'"
Amy Strong, of Alpharetta, joined the challenge at Alpharetta Life Time in February 2012, chipping $25 into the pool. By May 2012, she lost 40 pounds and won the women's division. Her husband Daryl Strong, 59, lost 36 pounds and won the men's division. Together, they walked away with $500 in cash.
"The money made it fun and the money is nice," she said, "but really what's more important is making healthy habits and there's no way I would be where I am without that 90 day challenge."
She and her husband now eat healthier and research restaurant menus before eating out. She's lost 40 more pounds since the challenge ended.
Johnston, the DietBet gambler, continued to lose weight after she she stopped betting. She reached her Weight Watchers goal in January. Her total weight loss: 153 pounds.
Johnston enjoys perusing the DietBet web site (www.dietbetter.com) which hosts several games at once, including one led by celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels. She's also a lifetime member of Weight Watchers and attends WW meetings every Monday morning.
"Those weekly meeting helps keep me accountable, but the biggest motivation for keeping the weight off though, is my family," she said. "My husband and children are so proud of me ... I just couldn't let them -- or myself -- down, by gaining the weight back."