By Beth Krane
An online weight loss game designed with input from UConn Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences Tricia Leahey is reaching a critical, but extremely elusive, target audience: young adults ages 18 to 35.
Despite being at high risk for obesity, young adults represent only seven percent of those enrolled in traditional weight loss programs and the few who do enroll have poorer engagement and weight loss than older adults, said Leahey, an Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) Principal Investigator. As a result, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently issued a statement highlighting the urgent need for appealing and effective weight loss programs for this age group.
One promising answer to NIH’s call is the web site, DietBet.com, for which Leahey serves as Chief Scientific Officer. DietBet.com uses gaming principles, such as challenges, nominal monetary prizes and social interaction, to motivate participants to lose weight. In contrast to traditional weight loss programs, almost half of DietBet.com’s more than 150,000 users are young adults. More than half of those who participated in Leahey’s recent study of the online game’s effectiveness were young adults and almost 40 percent of them reached their 10 percent weight loss goal.
Leahey will present the study’s findings this Thursday, March 31st at the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
“Young adults want online programs with engaging features,” said Leahey, whose weight loss interventions borrow from behavioral economics theory. “We’re playing off the popularity of sports web sites where people can draft their own fantasy teams and pool money for pay-outs.”
DietBet.com offers two categories of weight loss games. Those who join as “KickStarters” play for one month with a goal of losing four percent of their body weight. The “Transformers,” whom Leahey studied, play for six months with a goal of losing 10 percent of their body weight. Leahey said those in the first group tend to play with a short-term goal in mind, such as getting ready for beach season or a special event. Those in the second, longer session tend to have more to lose – and also more to gain in terms of long-term health benefits such as preventing diabetes and heart disease.
Each DietBet.com group has two or more players who pay $25 per month (for the Transformers) or $35 for the one month (for the KickStarters). Players’ money is pooled together at the outset and used for monthly pay-outs for those participants who meet pre-specified weight loss goals (Month One: three percent body weight, Month Two: six percent body weight, etc.).
During the game, players interact on the platform, uploading updates about their progress, posting pictures, “cheering,” posting/liking comments, and viewing each other’s weight loss via the leaderboard. Photo- and video-based weigh-in procedures are used to verify weights.
“We’re trying to make weight loss more fun, more social, more appealing,” Leahey said.
From the end of 2013 to early 2015, a total of 7,950 Transformers (those in the six-month game) participated in Leahey’s study. In contrast to those enrolled in traditional behavioral weight loss programs, 56 percent of the participants in the DietBet.com study were young adults. They completed an average of 36.9 posts (either weigh-ins or social interactions) and lost an average of 6.3% of their body weight. Moreover, 37% of the young adults in the study met their goal of losing 10 percent of their body weight.
Another promising finding from the study is that the older adults who participated in the game boasted similar successes: they averaged 35.3 posts and also lost an average of 6.3 percent of their body weight.
“The web site offers a much more current way to lose weight and appeals to young and old users alike,” Leahey said. “There really is nothing else like it on the market.”
Leahey’s study, which received a citation award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine, did not receive any funding from DietBet.com or its parent company, WayBetter Inc.