Study shows financial incentives in short doses can lead to increased and sustained physical activity

Daniel Reche

A new study led by Western University shows that modest financial incentives administered as a short ‘dose’ may drive sustained physical activity. The results are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“We know there is a strong relationship between physical activity and health. Yet, the average adult accumulates only about half the recommended 10,000 daily steps,” says Marc Mitchell the lead study researcher. “Our physical inactivity pandemic carries a massive financial burden too and it is imperative that we find new ways to motivate movement – even if that means paying some people to be active.”

The use of financial incentives to promote physical activity has grown in popularity due to technological advances that make it easier to track and reward physical activity, such as smartphone applications and wearable activity trackers.

The team’s analysis showed that modest incentives (averaging US$1.40 per day and as small as US$0.10 per day) increased physical activity for short and long durations by about 10-15%, and up to 75% with better incentive designs. Furthermore, after the incentives were removed, physical activity remained elevated. This suggests that a short-term incentive ‘dose’ may promote sustained physical activity.

“This evidence contradicts the prevailing sentiment that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation to get more active and damage the potential for sustained improvements,” said Mitchell. “In fact, these rewards may be just what people need, if even for a short period, to stimulate a more active, healthy lifestyle.”

Mitchell points to behavioural economics principles to explain these results such as the ‘present bias’ which states that people tend to respond more to the immediate costs and benefits of their actions at the expense of their long-term well-being. “By providing immediate incentives we harness the inherent human ‘present bias’, essentially tipping daily decisional scales towards more physical activity.” said Mitchell.

“Our new ability to track and reward physical activity with the latest in smartphone technology lends itself to population-level interventions where walking is focus,” said Mitchell. “It also has the potential to cut the cost of incentive programs by more than 500% making them much easier to implement on a large scale.”

Mitchell’s team analysed data from 23 studies published between 2012 and May 2018 to examine the impact of incentives on physical activity. These studies included 6074 participants with an average age of 41 years, 64 per cent of whom were female.

The review was conducted by researchers at Western University, New York University, Institute for Work and Health, University Health Network and University of British Columbia.


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