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Can financial incentives promote physical activity?

Researchers recently studied the effect of financial incentives in promoting physical activity in adults.

In the United States, more than 80% of adults do not get the recommended daily amount of physical activity. Including children age six and up, 80.2 million people are classified as not physically active. The lack of physical activity has led to an increasing rate of obesity and obesity-related illnesses causing $190.2 billion per year in medical costs.

With technological advances, it is becoming easier for people to track their physical activity. Pedometers, cellphones, and heart rate trackers provide easy ways to keep tabs on physical activity. In addition, there are many food tracking apps that make it simple to track the number of calories consumed. Many employer health programs and even some state Medicaid programs provide financial incentives for health and wellness activities.

However, even with all of these ways to track, it is often difficult to meet the recommended physical activity levels and calorie amounts. To really get motivated, some services have begun connecting financial incentives as a means for promoting physical activity in adults. American researchers from Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine studied what effect different amounts of financial incentives had on promoting physical activity in adults. The study was published in JAMA Network.

To determine the most effective form of financial incentives, researchers divided 3515 participants into one of four groups. The physical activity of the groups was measured by a pedometer for three weeks before the intervention, two weeks during the intervention, and three weeks after the intervention. The control group received a constant daily rate of one cent per 1000 steps. The three remaining groups received a daily rate of twenty cents per 1000 steps dispensed at a constant rate, an increasing rate, and a decreasing rate. The participants were sent reminder emails the day before the two-week study began and halfway through.

During the study, the participants in the constant rate logged 306.7 more steps than those in the control group, the decreasing rate group logged 96.9 more steps than the control, and the increasing rate group did not log any appreciable difference to the control group.

Researchers statistically analyzed the difference in steps taken by each group when compared to the control group. Participants in the higher financial incentive groups took an average of 135 more steps per day. The members in the constant incentive group logged more steps during the study and for one week after its end. The decreasing incentive group logged the next most steps, and the increasing incentive group logged the least when compared to the control group.

Researchers think a possible explanation for why constant incentives were the most successful is that the concept of constant incentives is easier to understand and remember. In comparison, the participants in the variable groups might not have understood the incentive rates or felt that it was not fair. Researchers would like to further study the causes.

The study does suggest that using incentives is a good way of promoting physical activity in adults. When available, participation in a health program that includes financial benefits will also provide a health benefit.

Written by Rebecca K. Blankenship, B.Sc.

References:

  1. Bachireddy C, Joung A, John L et al. Effect of Different Financial Incentive Structures on Promoting Physical Activity Among Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(8):e199863. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.9863
  2. Facts & Statistics. HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/resource-center/facts-and-statistics/index.html. Published 2019. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  3. Mitchell M, Orstad S, Biswas A et al. Financial incentives for physical activity in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2019:bjsports-2019-100633. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-100633

 

Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship is a freelance technical writer. She reviews, edits, and authors internal quality documentation required for regulatory compliance. She has twenty years experience in industrial pharma/medical device quality management systems and an honors BSc in chemistry. She is a natural born rule follower and enjoys applying this strength to help others be audit ready to meet regulatory requirements. She also loves learning about the latest scientific discoveries while writing for Medical News Bulletin. Her free time is spent as a full-time mom, encouraging can-do attitudes and cooperation in her three children.
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