A study of different incentives found that paying people a few cents for gym visits, with a little extra if they returned after skipping a workout, was the most effective
8 December 2021
It is hard to persuade people to get more exercise – unless you pay them. A large trial of multiple incentive programmes for gym goers found that few had any lasting effects, but payments equivalent to just a few cents were the most effective nudge for people to keep active.
Taking regular exercise seems to lower people’s risk of a range of conditions, from high blood pressure to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Most guidelines recommend we do at least 150 minutes of moderate-level activities each week, such as brisk walking, as well as strength exercises such as lifting weights.
Katherine Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues looked at more than 60,000 members of a US gym chain called 24 Hour Fitness – the firm wasn’t involved in and didn’t fund the work, but provided anonymised data.
The team tested 54 different month-long motivational schemes, such as reminder text messages, getting people to make pledges and rewarding people with audiobooks or small payments in the form of points that could be exchanged for Amazon vouchers.
Nearly half the schemes increased weekly gym visits over the course of the month, by between 9 and 27 per cent. But only four had an effect that continued after the nudges finished. “You lose most of the benefits when you stop offering the programme – which suggests you should keep programmes going,” says Milkman.
The most effective intervention involved offering people points that could be redeemed with Amazon; this was equivalent to 22 cents for every workout attended, plus 9 cents if someone returned to the gym after one missed workout. Schemes that paid people for going to the gym without skipping a session proved less effective once the programme had finished.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04128-4
Sign up to our free Health Check newsletter for a round-up of all the health and fitness news you need to know, every Saturday
More on these topics: