Struggling to Reach Exercise Goals? Put Money on the Line

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Risking one’s pocketbook is among the most effective ways to incentivize people to get more exercise, new research indicates.

A study out of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine tested the effectiveness of financial incentives to increase exercise among overweight and obese adults.

The results, published by the Annals of Internal Medicine on Tuesday, show that the most effective financial incentive tested was risking a loss of money. In the study, this incentive entailed giving participants a lump sum of money at the start of the study and taking away a portion of that reward each day they failed to meet their exercise goals.

All 281 participants were given the same goal of reaching 7,000 steps per day, and their progress was tracked using a smartphone app. (The average U.S. adult takes 5,000 steps per day, according to a news release from the University of Pennsylvania.)

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • A control group, whose members received no financial incentive.
  • A gain incentive group, whose members received $1.40 for each day that the goal was achieved (equal to $42 per month).
  • A lottery incentive group, whose members were offered entry into a daily lottery with a possible prize that averaged $1.40 each day that the goal was achieved.
  • A loss incentive group, whose members were given $42 at the start of each month and had $1.40 taken away from them for each day the goal was not achieved.

Members of the first three groups achieved the daily goal about 30 to 35 percent of the time, while members of the loss incentive group achieved the goal 45 percent of the time. In other words, participants who were at risk of losing money achieved their goals almost 50 percent more often than the other participants.

Senior author Dr. Kevin G. Volpp, professor of medicine and health care management and director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, notes that the study results could inform workplace wellness programs, which typically offer a reward after a goal is achieved.

“Our findings demonstrate that the potential of losing a reward is a more powerful motivator and adds important knowledge to our understanding of how to use financial incentives to encourage employee participation in wellness programs.”

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