Would a $5 reward a week make you exercise regularly? Researchers test theory

TORONTO – Is $5 a week enough of an incentive to get you on the treadmill a few days a week?

After reviewing policies aimed at encouraging people to exercise, Toronto researchers say they’re hopeful that weekly $5 to $10 coupons to Tim Horton’s or Starbucks could be what forces people into the gym. They’re testing this theory out in a pilot study of their own.

“We were trying to figure out whether financial health incentives, like paying people to do exercise, lose weight, quit smoking, actually has a positive impact on those behaviours,” Marc Mitchell, a Ph.D student at the University of Toronto, said.

He’s a part-time cardiac rehabilitation supervisor at the Toronto Rehab Institute. Based on his experience, more often than not, people who take up exercise regimes ditch them within six months.

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In his study, Mitchell looked at 11 studies published over the past 25 years. Collectively, that was 1,500 patients – all healthy adults, who were working and without chronic conditions.

What incentives led these people to the gym largely depended on how much they were making at their jobs.

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“The threshold seems to be about $10 for somebody making $50,000 a year. It’s relative as you would imagine, right?”

“If you’re bringing in $250,000 a year, $10 might not do it. So that’s where it is,” Mitchell said.

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Some people need that reward to push them to exercise, Mitchell said. And with good reason: the bad things about exercise are immediate – it’s uncomfortable, it takes time out of your day, and you could be spending more time with family or friends.

The good things – health, being fit, more energy – are all delayed effects. It’s no wonder people are put off by the gym.

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“It’s really, really hard to exercise regularly. So the idea with the incentives is can we somehow introduce an immediate benefit even if it’s just $1 or $2 a day to get people to exercise regularly,” Mitchell said.

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His pilot program will recruit about 50 to 60 patients over the next two weeks who went through cardiac rehabilitation but quit at some point. Some people may exercise once or twice, but if there’s a $10 gift card for going for a third time, Mitchell hopes that fosters a regular habit.

It’s this group – those who went through rehabilitation because of a heart attack or other heart condition – that need to incorporate regular exercise. If they do, they’re cutting their risk of dying from another cardiac event by 50 per cent.

Watch the University Health Network’s video about the pilot project here:


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