Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania, USA undertook a study to assess the efficacy of three strategies to increase physical activity among overweight and obese workers by providing a financial incentive.
They said most workplace health interventions had tended to better engage workers with higher baseline physical activity levels rather than more sedentary workers, including those who are obese or overweight.
The researchers recruited 281 university employees with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 27 kg/m2 – indicating obesity or excessive weight – to participate in the 26-week study, which gave them a goal of taking at least 7000 steps per day. The researchers decided on this goal because:
- It satisfied guidelines for the minimum recommended levels of physical activity needed to achieve health benefits.
- It was 40 per cent higher than the average daily step count of 5000 among US adults.
- Prior studies found that sedentary workers were less likely to participate in interventions with a 10,000-step goal.
- Setting a minimum threshold puts a greater emphasis on encouraging sedentary persons to be physically active and less emphasis on getting highly active persons to be even more active.
For the duration of the study, participants in all four groups received daily feedback on whether they had achieved the 7000-step goal the previous day.
Whereas the control group received no financial incentive, participants in the three intervention groups received a financial reward if they met the 7000-step goal. There was a different financial incentive design for each of the intervention groups:
- Participants in the ‘gain incentive’ group received $1.40 (all figures in $US) for each day they met the goal.
- Participants in the ‘loss incentive’ group were allocated $42 at the start of each month but lost $1.40 each day they failed to meet the 7000-step goal.
- Participants in the ‘lottery incentive’ group selected a two-digit number between 00 and 99. One winning number was randomly selected daily during the intervention period. If a participant's number had a single-digit match, he or she won $5. If the participant's number had a two-digit match, he or she won $50. However, participants were only eligible to collect the reward if the 7000-step goal was achieved on the previous day. Ineligible participants were informed what they would have won if they had achieved the goal, drawing on evidence that the desire to avoid regret can be motivating.
Financial incentives were only offered to the intervention groups during the first 13 weeks of the study, but daily performance feedback was delivered for the entire 26 weeks. Researchers kept track of participants’ step count using an application installed on their smartphones, which they were required to carry during the study.
Workers don't want to be the biggest losers
The researchers found the ‘gain incentive’ approach was no more effective at increasing daily exercise in participants than offering them no financial incentive but participants in the ‘loss incentive group’ were 50 per cent more likely to achieve the 7000-step goal then those in the control group.
They concluded that incentives framed as a loss were most effective for achieving physical activity goals in obese or overweight workers.
“Our findings suggest that the design of financial incentives is important and that incorporating insights from behavioral economics may significantly improve their effectiveness,” they added.
Source: Workplace OHS