Financial incentives for promoting daily physical activity goals are most effective when the award can be lost, according to a randomized, controlled trial published in Annals of Internal Medicine. This means that the threat of having an award taken away is more effective than not earning one in the first place.
More than half of adults in the United States do not get the minimum amount of exercise required to reduce their risk for disease and death. Workplace wellness programs are growing in popularity and more than 80 percent of large employers now use some form of financial incentive to encourage participation. However, little research exists on the efficacy of financial incentive designs.
Researchers sought to determine the effectiveness of three methods to frame financial incentives to increase physical activity among overweight and obese adults. Participants in a 13-week intervention were given a goal of 7,000 steps a day and were randomly assigned to the control group or one of three financial incentives: gain (a fixed amount of money given each day the goal was achieved); lottery (daily eligibility for cash if goal was achieved); and loss (cash given monthly upfront and a small amount removed each day the goal was not achieved).
The researchers found that the gain incentive was no more effective than control. In comparison, a loss incentive resulted in a 50 percent relative increase in the mean proportion of time participants achieved their physical activity goals. According to the authors, these findings suggest that the way in which a financial incentive is framed is important to its effectiveness. This information may be especially helpful to employers looking to implement workplace wellness programs.