People Will Exercise If You Bribe Them to Exercise

Germany Free State Prussia Berlin Berlin: Athletes March 1930: members of the PSV gymnastic association exercise - 1930 - Vintage property of ullstein bild
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Remember that New Year’s resolution you made to run a marathon? It might have gone out the window now that winter’s here and some sedentary Netflixing seems much more fun than running outside in the Arctic wind. But researchers seem to have come up with one way of nudging people off the couch, and it’s pretty simple. It is, essentially, bribery, sometimes paired with some mild threats. 

In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers asked 281 participants to walk 7,000 steps a day — or three and a half miles — for 13 weeks. They broke them up into four groups. One group was paid $1.40 every day that they reached their goals; if they didn’t walk a certain day, they didn’t get paid. A second group was entered into a lottery with the potential to win a $100 grand prize at the end of the 13 weeks. A third group got a $42 deposit in their bank account on the first day of the month; if their fitness tracker showed that they hadn’t done their 7,000 steps, they got $1.40 knocked off every day that they didn’t walk. The last group, our control group, just got daily feedback.

Here’s what happened: The control group — the ones who just got some high fives and encouragement for their work — did just about as well as any of the other groups in achieving their 7,000-step goals about 30 percent of the time. The groups that were entered into a lottery or paid daily both reached about 35 percent of their goals. But the group that did the best by far was the one that had the deposit at the beginning of the month and was threatened with deductions if they didn’t walk their 7,000 steps, achieving their goals at a rate of about 45 percent.

There’s a presumption that tracking your activity will help you change your behavior,” Dr. Mitesh S. Patel, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the paper, told the New York Times. “But it typically doesn’t work unless it’s combined with behavior change strategies. Our study shows that the design of the incentive is critical to its success.” Patel’s team is onto something here: Fitness trackers have been shown to be a nagging reminder that you should really get off your butt, and that exercise is a pain. The results are also echoed by a study done last year with CVS employees who were offered a financial incentive to quit smoking; people who were rewarded with money for achieving a goal did significantly better than those who were punished with deductions.

Seems like common sense, but it points yet again to how important incentives are to making a set behavioral change, and might explain why your one friend got super into working out once their office started awarding prizes to fitness-challenge winners. Simply put: Money talks.

People Will Exercise If You Bribe Them