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Want to lose weight in 2010? Put your money where your mouth is.

The story of Josh Gardner’s struggles with his weight will sound familiar to millions of Americans who have packed on an unhealthy number of extra pounds. In college, Gardner, who now works as a golf pro in Athens, Alabama, was in the best shape of his life, a regular in the gym and a consistent runner. But then, he graduated. “I actually moved back home for a little while and started eating Mom’s cooking,” he says. By the end of last year, Gardner’s weight had spiked to 206 pounds, a full 50 pounds more than he wanted.

It wasn’t as if Gardner didn’t know what he needed to do to shed the weight. The answers, after all, are the stuff of any good New Year’s resolution -- be more consistent with an exercise regimen and avoid the tasty cheeseburgers and pizza that torpedo any diet. But what he needed was motivation, and for that, he turned to an unlikely source: former president George W. Bush. Well, sort of. See, Gardner signed up with the website stickK.com, which promises to help people achieve personal goals -- many of them health and wellness related, like losing weight and quitting smoking -- through the use of what behavioral economists call commitment contracts (but what you and I would call a good, old-fashioned bet).

When Gardner initially signed up with stickK.com, with the goal of losing 50 pounds in 48 weeks, he had to hand over his credit card information and put down a wager, the amount of money he would lose if he didn’t drop the weight. “I asked myself the question, What is an amount, if I fail, that will make me very aggravated with myself?” he explains. He opted for $1,008, or $21 per week. So now, Gardner has to weigh himself once a week -- his sister verifies the results, and although she’s in Florida, she can request a photo of her brother’s feet on the scale -- and every time he doesn’t drop a pound in a week, stickK.com charges his credit card and makes a $21 donation to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. That’s hardly an appealing prospect for Gardner, who votes for the Democratic Party (Republican users of stickK.com can choose Bill Clinton’s presidential library as their so-called “anticharity”).

During the first few months, Gardner did pretty well, dropping from 206 pounds to as low as 188 and missing his weight-loss goal only three of the weeks, meaning he donated a total of $63 to the Bush library. StickK.com and other similar sites, like Fatbet.net and MakeMoneyLosingWeight.com, also allow people to turn weight loss into a high-stakes competition between friends and family. “We encourage people to choose those they’re competitive with, like friends, roommates, colleagues, or spouses,” says Jordan Goldberg, the CEO of stickK .com, which charges a fee for handling the financial aspect of the bet and had $1.5 million wagered at the site in its first 15 months of operation. “Someone who will dangle the money in front of you and make you feel bad or spend it on things you deem wasteful.”

COULD BETTING, which many consider a vice, really be the antidote to the vice of overindulgence? Obviously, businesses like stickK.com hope so, and there’s some powerful research to back up their business model. A group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that financial incentives really do make a difference when it comes to getting people to lose weight. In their study, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers discovered that dieters who had the opportunity to reap a relatively small windfall, less than $200, lost considerably more weight than did a control group, which only had to attend a monthly weigh-in session.

The financial incentive is one thing, of course, but what seems to supercharge the effectiveness of the method is an element of public competition -- the bigger, the better -- between friends or between foes, with the latter scenario perhaps being the more motivating one. “When you go public and make a big to-do about something you are planning to do, like lose weight, a lot of people know about it, and the stakes get raised,” says Jamie Rosen, a founder of MakeMoneyLosingWeight.com. “In addition to there being money involved, just the fact that there is humiliation at risk is also compelling.” The desire to win -- or at least not lose -- any amount of cash, combined with the dread of losing face, can lead to some stiff competition and mind games. Rosen says he’s heard about offices where workers competing for a cash prize for the person who loses the most weight will do push-ups in front of one another’s desks and surreptitiously leave chocolates around, hoping to break their adversaries.

ADAM ORKAND, cofounder of Fatbet.net, found that wagering a good friend was a particularly effective route to losing weight. In 2007, Orkand and his friend John Dirks realized that they were both tipping the scales at 230 pounds. They decided to bet each other a couple hundred bucks to reach 200 pounds by a certain date. If one of them failed to lose the weight by then, they had to pay up. “We are both very competitive, especially with each other,” says Orkand, who, together with Dirks, runs the site as an online community rather than a business. “A couple hundred dollars? There was just no way. I could have bet $5. There was just no way either of us was going to lose.”

But lose they certainly did -- weight, that is, and a lot of it. Neither won the initial bet, as they both reached their target weight on time. Now, Orkand and Dirks are both down to 180 pounds, which makes them both winners. To Orkand, another key factor to reaching his goal was accountability. He knew that Dirks would scrutinize his weight like a hawk; there was no messing around at weigh-in time because there was so much on the line. But he also says structuring the bet correctly -- meaning that there were monetary stakes that really mattered -- was vital. “You hear about people doing these namby-pamby bets, like $5 or $10, or they say they’ll give $20 to charity, which gets it in their head that even if they lose, they’re still giving the money to charity, so it’s a win-win,” he says. “That’s not what you want; you don’t want a win-win. You want to lose hard.”

Still, while a wager is certainly an effective way for some people to lose weight, Orkand believes that unless it’s accompanied by true lifestyle changes once the bet is over, the weight loss will be fleeting. For him, that meant becoming an avid runner. He now logs between 30 and 40 miles per week; in fact, he became so committed to getting in his miles that last winter, a particularly snowy one in his hometown of Seattle, he attached screws to his running shoes so he could run on the ice and snow. It was enough to make him wonder about his transformation. “Who is this guy?” he asks with a laugh. But that’s the hard truth about weight loss -- a wager can get you where you want to be weightwise, but you still have to make difficult, fundamental changes. “Weight loss is a hopeless battle without becoming a different person,” Orkand says.