Want to get people to work out? Pay them, says a study

Students work out at a gym in Ohio on Sept 8, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Receiving a tiny monetary reward at the right moment could play an outsized role in motivating people to exercise, according to a large-scale and innovative new study of how to nudge people to show up at the gym.

The study, published in Nature, involved 61,293 American gym members, 30 prominent scientists working at 15 universities, and more than 50 motivational programmes.

In addition to reward points, incentives ranged from a free audiobook for gym use to cheery instructions from researchers to reframe exercise as fun. While some of the programmes galvanised additional gym visits, others, including some the scientists had absolutely expected to inspire more exercise, did not.

The study's findings, positive and the reverse, offer timely insights into how people might better motivate themselves to keep their upcoming New Year's exercise resolutions.

The science of human behaviour, including whether and why people exercise, can be squishy and rife with research hurdles.

Many past studies have looked at how to build habits, instil confidence or stick to an exercise routine. But most of those studies have been small scale or homogeneous. Those studies have also used a wide range of methods to track behaviour change, making it difficult to compare data from one study to another.

These issues naturally concerned Dr Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 2021 book How To Change, and her colleague, Dr Angela Duckworth, also a professor at Wharton and author of the 2016 bestseller Grit.

Among the foremost behavioural scientists at work today, they were convinced their field could and should become more scientifically rigorous, which led them to begin noodling with the notion of mega studies.

A mega study, as they defined the concept, would be large in scale, involving thousands of participants, and not the dozens commonly used in behavioural research. It would also randomly expose large groups of volunteers to a range of behaviour modifications or other interventions, employing objective measures to assess whether an intervention had worked.

These ideas brought the team to the 24 Hour Fitness chain. They had decided that one of their first mega studies would concentrate on exercise behaviour.

With its nationwide network of hundreds of gyms, 24 Hour Fitness offered the researchers millions of potential participants for their massive study. Then, they invited other scientists to come up with interventions they felt would up people's willingness to work out.

They also created an umbrella programme called Step Up, which gym members could choose to join, earning Amazon reward points worth about US$1 (S$1.37) once they did. Step Up promised to provide them with new ways to motivate themselves to work out.

More than 61,000 members joined Step Up, after which the scientists divided them into 53 groups. One group, which served as a control, changed nothing about their lives or gym time.

The others were then assigned to receive a basic package of motivational help that included advice to plan the exact day and time of each workout, a text reminder about those plans, and a minuscule reward if they did work out, worth about 22 cents in reward points.

On top of this basic package of reminder texts and small rewards, the researchers then randomly assigned the gym members who were not in the control group to one of 52 motivational programmes developed by the researchers.

In one, for example, the members earned reward points worth about US$1.75 every time they visited the gym. In others, they shared their workouts with friends on social media, signed a fitness pledge or agreed to reflect after each workout. Each group included at least 455 participants. Each intervention lasted a month.

Before and during that month, the researchers tracked how often people turned up at their gym. They also asked outside exercise and behaviour experts which interventions they expected would be most successful.

A participant in an exercise class in New York on June 3, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The results surprised almost everyone. Prof Duckworth, for one, said she had thought encouraging people to view workouts as fun would get them to the gym more often, but that group showed only a minuscule increase in gym visits.

The most successful intervention, though, turned out to be giving people the equivalent of 9 cents' worth of reward points if they returned to the gym after missing a planned workout. This increased gym visits by about 16 per cent, compared with the baseline package of planning and text reminders.

Almost as effective was simply giving people a bigger reward, worth US$1.75, every time they worked out. It increased exercise by about 14 per cent, compared with the baseline package.

Overall, the findings suggest that for people to exercise regularly in 2022, they should, in general:

- Plan a reasonable workout schedule.

- Programme reminders of that schedule into their phones or with an admonitory spouse or training buddy.

- Find small ways to reward themselves when they exercise as planned. Drop a dollar into a bowl for every workout, for instance, and let the proceeds mount.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.