Do incentive-based fitness programs really help us meet our health and fitness goals?
It’s psych 101: when we reward ourselves for good behavior, we are more likely to continue the good behavior. When it comes to health habits, this principle has been practiced many ways over the years. When it comes to incentive-based fitness programs, the fitness industry has tried everything: tangible rewards ranging from free gear to vacations and financial incentives in the form of discounts and cash prizes. But the question has always remained: do these kinds of rewards really help us meet our health and fitness goals?
In the past, studies have demonstrated that financial incentives will result in a slight increase in good habit formation in some cases, but the increase is generally modest and short-lived. However, the same studies show that people are more likely to sustain the positive impact of incentive-based fitness programs if they enter the program at certain times when their motivation is higher. These times usually coincide with life events, (i.e. a birthday or upcoming wedding) or they are the result of a significant financial investment in the health or fitness goal.
Incentive-Based Fitness Programs & Goals
Based on that insight, a new study¹ tested the impact of an incentive-based fitness program using a group of new gym members, which ensures the group is already motivated to meet their goals. The 836 new members were randomly assigned to one of four categories, including one control group, and given the goal of getting to the gym at least 9 times in the first 6 weeks of membership, or an average of 1.5 times per week. This was designed to be a goal that was a stretch for the average member but was still attainable—visits typically fall to 1x/wk. after 2 months of gym membership.
9 visits/6 weeks: No reward
9 visits/6 weeks: $30 Amazon gift card
9 visits/6 weeks: $60 Amazon gift card
9 visits in 6 weeks: specific Amazon item worth $30
The researchers hypothesized that Group III would feel a stronger sense of ownership over their specific prize item than the groups who were offered gift cards, even if the item was worth less. This is based on the idea that failure to earn the reward would result in a sense of loss, which could make the item more valuable to be them than the equal- or greater-valued gift cards.
Incentive-Based Fitness Programs Don’t Increase Gym Attendance
The findings, however, suggest that incentive-based fitness programs are only moderately more effective at developing habits than non incentive-based programs. While groups I-III all had a slight increase in the completion of the program over the control group, the incentives did nothing to affect the subjects’ behavior after the 6-week program had concluded.
In other words, rewards don’t increase gym attendance.
Motivation is Key
What does this mean for us as fitness professionals? It’s just as we’ve always said: there is no magic solution to weight loss or fitness—you simple have to follow a plan and put in the work. And that means for our clients, it all comes down to motivation.
So, tell us, what are some of the ways you help motivate your clients to stay on track with their health and fitness goals?
P.S. If you would like some additional insight or inspiration on new methods for motivating clients, you might want to check out any of the following home study courses NETA offers:
- Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness (Item # 9239)
- Facilitating the Adoption and Maintenance of Physical Activity (Item # 9208)
- Motivating People To Be Physically Active (Item # 990)
- Winning Health Promotion Strategies (Item # 9220)
¹Carrera, M., Royer, H., Stehr, M., & Sydnor, J. (2017). Can Financial Incentives Help People Trying to Establish New Habits? Experimental Evidence with New Gym Members (No. w23567). National Bureau of Economic Research.