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Would You Exercise More if You Were Paid?

Obviously we all know that exercise is very important to both weight maintenance and overall health. So why is that we still aren’t doing it? Will rewards help?


Despite the many (many!) health benefits of exercise, still less than half of US adults are getting the minimum recommended amount each day. We cite many obstacles in our path – lack of time, lack of energy, family obligations, etc etc. Part of our problem is that we haven’t taken the time to map out a realistic plan to reach our goals – a plan that offers rewards for even small steps (pun intended).

But do rewards really help incentivize us to get in more daily exercise? Dr. Mitesh Patel of the University of Pennsylvania says yes – but with some stipulations.

Team Vs. Individual Rewards

In a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Patel gathered just over 300 volunteers together to see how rewards could be used to improve daily activity levels. Over the course of 13 weeks, these participants were divided into four teams – a control group, a group in which rewards are based on individual performance, another in which rewards were based on the team’s combined efforts, and the fourth who were rewarded based on a combination of individual and team performance.

Each day, the teams were evaluated to see if they met the minimum daily step goal – 7000 in this study. Financial incentives were offered to increase the participants’ accountability.

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Dr. Patel found that people were more likely to increase their daily steps when they received incentives as a combination of individual and team efforts. This suggests that rewards aren’t as effective if they only promote individual competition. Social support is often a positive motivator toward reaching goals.

Immediate Rewards are Best Movtivators

Rewards also worked best when they were offered “now” rather than “later.” For example, only rewarding yourself when you hit a certain number on a scale is not as effective as rewarding yourself for each 5-pound increment toward the goal. Or rewarding yourself with a guilt-free half hour of television ONLY after you have walked for 30-minutes.

Technology is out there for you to monitor your progress toward goals. Smartphones have a zillion different apps, so you are sure to find one that you like. For example, if it motivates you to be charitable, the Charity Miles app will donate money toward your favorite charity for each mile that you run, walk or bike. If you like friendly competition and you have a FitBit, add friends within the app for daily and weekly challenges to keep you honest.

Daily exercise is one of the most positive and beneficial things you can do for both physical and mental health. Find a way to reward yourself for accomplishing these goals, especially in the beginning when motivation may be low and obstacles seem huge. Eventually, you will be exercising daily without thought because it is a habit you just can’t do without!

Journal Reference:
Patel, M.S. et al. Individual versus team-based financial incentives to increase physical activity: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2016 DOI: 10.1007/s11606-016-3627-0

Photo Credit: By Alexandra Miletta (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons