When it comes to exercising regularly, the fear of losing something works better than the chance of winning something, according to a study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The 26-week trial, funded by the National Institute on Aging, included 281 adults and was conducted between March and September 2014.
“Workplace wellness programs aimed at increasing physical activity and other healthy behaviors have also become increasingly popular, but there’s a lack of understanding about how to design incentives within these programs,” Mitesh S. Patel, the lead author and an assistant professor of Medicine and Health Care Management in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and The Wharton School, said in a statement. “Our findings suggest that these programs could result in better outcomes if they designed financial incentives based on principles from behavioral economics such as loss aversion.”
In the study, participants were split into four groups of about 70 people, all of whom were told to walk at least 7,000 steps per day and use Facebook’s Moves app to track their progress. All but participants in the control group received daily alerts from the app notifying them if they had reached their goal. Also, this was the only group without incentives.
One of the three incentive groups was incentivized with $1.40 for each day they met their goal. For the second group, $42 was allocated upfront, but $1.40 was taken away every day they didn’t meet their goal. Finally, the third group was offered a lottery incentive where participants who completed their goal of walking 7,000 steps had a chance to win $5 on a daily basis.
The incentives lasted for 13 weeks, but the daily performance updates were sent to participants for the length of the 26-week trial.
Researchers found that the gain incentive was no more effective than control, while those in the loss incentive group saw a 50 percent increase in the number of days they achieved physical activity goals. Another important finding is that 96 percent of participants were still actively using the app three months after researchers stopped offering incentives.
“Our findings reveal how wearable devices and apps can play a role in motivating people to increase physical activity, but what really makes the difference is how you design the incentive strategy around those apps,” David A. Asch, a professor of Medicine and Health Care Management and director of the Penn Center for Health Care Innovation, said in a statement.