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Finding the motivation to work out can be hard, but daily incentives may help

For many, finding the motivation to start and sustain an exercise regimen is like the search for the holy grail. Despite countless attempts to find their way to regular physical activity, Americans still struggle to uncover the inspiration to move and keep moving.

Less than 25% of adults meet the aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity guidelines prescribed by the American College of Sports Medicine. But a new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that daily incentives may offer the motivation Americans need to reap the benefits of exercise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity can prevent unhealthy weight gain, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, improve sleep quality and cognitive ability, reduce anxiety, and enhance bone and musculoskeletal health. Experts say even modest amounts of physical activity can help.

Incentives for sustained physical activity

New research from Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics found that gaming and financial incentives delivered through daily messages prompted people to increase their exercise routines. For more than a year, the researchers tracked 1,062 people at higher risk of cardiovascular disease. They each wore devices that recorded their steps and delivered daily messages with their step counts.

The study participants were randomly assigned to four groups. People in the first group received a gaming message that added or subtracted points based on whether they met their step goals. Participants in another group received $14 each week but lost $2 for each day in which they failed to meet their step goals. People in the third group received both gaming and financial incentives. The fourth group did not receive any incentives.

All three incentive-based groups increased their daily step totals, but the group that received gaming and financial incentives increased them the most and maintained their physical performance for at least six months after the conclusion of the study.

On average, participants increased their step counts by more than 1,500 per day and added about 40 minutes of moderate exercise to their weekly routines. Their improvements were linked to a 10% reduction in their risk for cardiovascular-related death.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations

The larger context of the Penn study is the psychology of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations, models that are often present in discussions of healthy behavior. In simple terms, intrinsic motivation concerns behaviors that people take for their inherent satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation produces behavior through external rewards or punishments. The monetary payments and gaming system are examples of extrinsic motivators, an approach well-established in behavioral psychology.

Experts who have studied intrinsic and extrinsic motivation note that extrinsic incentives are necessary to meet the shortcomings of intrinsic motivation. If intrinsic factors alone were able to steer human behavior, then patients would diligently take their medications, everyone would wear seat belts (without mandatory laws) and no one would smoke. The implication is that if intrinsic motivators prevailed, everyone would exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. 

The Penn study used extrinsic motivation by leveraging the power of economic incentives to influence behavior and generate immediate benefits, a major contrast to longer-developing, intrinsically-generated outcomes. Researchers point to health-related studies that show financial incentives work well and that more than 85% of U.S. employers offer some form of financial incentives to spur healthy behavior.

Still, while psychologists recognize the need for extrinsic motivations, some believe that intrinsic factors are more likely to result in a sustained commitment to exercise. A prominent view that stands squarely at the intersection of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is Self Determination Theory. It suggests meaningful behavior change has certain psychological requirements anchored within people, but recognizes that external motivations can prompt people to initiate healthy practices and, over time, internalize these behaviors and adopt them as their own, a process called internalization. 

This is what health insurers are counting on when they pay for fitness center memberships. They use the extrinsic motivation of the membership fee subsidy to get people to the gym, and hope that over time people come to value the experience, go there regularly and adopt other healthy behaviors. A stretch? Perhaps, but that’s the psychological bet. 

Identifying your motivating factors

Would a few bucks in your pocket each month get you off the couch? Are you already a regular at the gym, inspired by an inner drive to stay healthy? The truth is that everyone is at their own location on the motivational spectrum, and we are all inspired by varied factors.

I’ve met men whose healthy behaviors were triggered by the death of a parent or sibling at an early age, and groups of men who are motivated by the social dimensions of working out with their buddies every morning.

There are psychological theories that demonstrate the efficacy of any number of models. The key is to find a route to health that fits your circumstances whether intrinsic, extrinsic or some combination of both. 

Regardless of your source of motivation, experts offer a common denominator for success in sustaining your exercise program: social relationships.

The CDC says exercising with a buddy can make people feel more motivated to work harder, be open to try new techniques, and be more consistent. Kaiser Permanente cites studies that show how exercising with a romantic partner produces success in reaching health goals. And the top finding from the Harvard Study of Adult Development is that close relationships and social connections are essential to our well-being as we age. 

The bottom line is that motivation resides in any number of places, whether it’s an inspirational message on a fitness app, a deposit into a bank account or the eyes of a loved one. The key is to build off that inspiration and find ways to turn that inspiration into a commitment that lasts. Start your search today.


Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.

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