A new study shows that exercise increases after the financial rewards fade

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If you start exercising for the promise of a little extra cash, you may stick with the habit even after the financial incentives wear off, new research from the University of Western Ontario suggests.

A study of more than 580,000 Canadians in three provinces using a step-counting app found that even when the rewards were removed after a year, most participants continued to walk nearly as much.

Using the app helped walkers add an average of about 900 steps to their daily tally (double that for those who were physically inactive at baseline). When the $0.04 per day incentives in the form of rewards for gas tickets, movie tickets and other perks disappeared, the number of steps fell by approximately 200 steps, which Western researchers considered “clinically significant.”

“Ideally, you want people to go out and exercise for free. But clearly that’s not the case, given the high rates of obesity and physical inactivity. The fact that monetary incentives can be provided to start exercising, rather than using it permanently, is a very encouraging sign,” said Sean Spilsbury, lead author of the new study published in JAMA Network Open.

“For the ball to roll, you have to hit it. Once it rolls, the momentum can take over,” he added of the study participants’ exercise habits.

Spilsbury earned his master’s degree working with kinesiology professor Mark Mitchell, who studies behavioral science and digital health, including previous research on the role of financial incentives on physical activity.

Participants using the now-defunct app in Ontario received walking incentives throughout the year, rewards that helped increase their step count by an average of 900 steps (or double that for those who were previously inactive).

Then government funding was removed, and the awards largely disappeared with it.

The Western study surveyed not only Ontarians using the step-counting app, but also users in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, where activity incentives remained throughout the study period and provided pseudo-control groups.

Spilsbury and Mitchell, along with co-authors Piotr Wilko, Carolyn Taylor and Harry Prapavessis, found that there was a small drop of about 200 steps, on average, among Ontarians who used the app after the rewards mostly disappeared.

The step reduction is not clinically significant

The biggest drop occurred among those most engaged with the app, who took about 330 fewer steps. Those who were inactive when the incentives were available remained inactive or saw a slight increase after the rewards disappeared.

The average reduction in steps was “modest” or almost insignificant for a person’s overall health, the researchers said.

“We’re seeing a non-clinically significant decline,” Mitchell said.

Those post-boost results were exciting for the team that analyzed the step data.

“A reduction of 100 to 300 steps a day is promising, because that’s the objection to encouraging physical activity. ‘Okay, you give (a reward) and it works, but what happens when you take it away?'” Spilsbury said.

Based on the latest findings, very little changes when you take away incentives like gas, movies and other perks for loyalty points.

“Governments in Canada and abroad, companies and corporate wellness programs have been interested in this approach (encouraging physical activity). The Achilles’ heel has always been that it’s too expensive. This is one of the first times we’ve been able to show, with a really large sample , we can make an effective program even more affordable, even more sustainable,” Mitchell said.

Spilsbury, who runs five times a week and loves swimming, was skeptical at first.

“I never thought anyone would practice for money,” he said. But he enjoyed researching those who did, even with the challenges of completing his work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was Mitchell’s earlier work on exercise incentives that led Silsbury to apply for a master’s degree in kinesiology at Western.

“I love psychology.” The passion I have for psychology is different than the passion I have for exercise, it kind of explains why I do it, so I like to try to find out why others do it too.”

More information:
Sean Spilsbury et al, Declining financial health incentives and changes in physical activity, JAMA Network Open (2023). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetvorkopen.2023.42663

Provided by the University of Western Ontario

Citation: Exercise increases after financial rewards fade, new study shows (2023, Nov 14) Retrieved on Nov 14, 2023 from https://medicalkpress.com/nevs/2023-11-gains-financial-revards.html

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