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Gamification, Financial Rewards Drive Workout Motivation, Study Shows

Gamification, Financial Rewards Drive Workout Motivation, Study Shows

The new research could have important implications for fitness brands looking to motivate more people to get moving

Gamified, point-earning strategies and small financial incentives can encourage increased physical activity, especially when the two are combined, according to new research. 

An 18-month study presented this month at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session examined the effect that earning points or small amounts of money had on the physical activity of people who either have cardiovascular disease or are at high risk.

“This is one of the largest and longest-duration randomized trials of a home-based intervention to promote physical activity,” said Alexander Fanaroff, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

“Our findings show that interventions based on techniques from behavioral economics can achieve and sustain increased levels of physical activity in a population with risk factors for cardiovascular disease and could be another tool to help reduce cardiovascular risk,” Fanaroff added.

Inside the Study

The study’s 1,062 participants (with a median age of 67) were given a wearable device to track their daily steps and choose an increased step goal before being assigned to one of four groups: control, gamification, monetary reward or a combination of gamified points and small sums of money.

The control group only received daily text messages notifying them of their daily step count from the day before, whereas those in the gamification group participated in a weekly game where they received 70 points weekly. They would retain their points if they met their step goal, but if they didn’t, they’d lose ten points.

Those in the financial incentive group received $14 in a virtual account weekly. Each day they didn’t meet their step goal, they’d lose $2, but the balance would remain static if they met their goal. The combination group received both the gamified points experience and “loss-framed” financial incentives. Like the control group, the intervention participants received daily text messages on their status and a note of encouragement.

“In all three intervention arms, we observed an increase in daily steps of about 10% more than control from a baseline of about 5,000,” Fanaroff said.

The takeaway, though, is that the combination of earning points and small sums of money prompted participants to not only increase their daily step count but sustain the increase for a year, according to the study’s researchers. 

“The gamification and financial incentives interventions were equally effective, but the combined intervention was significantly more effective than either intervention alone,” Fanaroff said.

Numerous companies have leaned into fitness gamification as a motivational and engagement tool including Quell, Zwift and Supernatural, a popular VR fitness app from Within that Mark Zuckerberg and Meta acquired after a battle with FTC.

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Move It or Lose It?

The study’s findings also spell good news for apps like DietBet, WayBetter and HealthyWage, which use cash payouts as an incentive towards weight loss goals. Another company, Sweatcoin, rewards users for walking and running with a digital currency that can be spent on various products or donated to a selected charity. 

Users of such platforms typically place a bet that they will lose a certain amount of weight within a set time frame. If they hit their goal, they get their money back, but they can win more if they go above their goal. However, if they don’t meet their weight loss goal, they will lose their initial bet. The majority of financially incentivized weight loss apps also have group contests available where participants encourage one another, and winners split the pot. 

“Weight Wagering” apps are not without criticism. They have come under fire from dieticians who say they can promote unhealthy eating and excessive weight loss in a short amount of time while also questioning the long-term sustainability of weight loss that’s been motivated by a money-driven contest.

Other apps, like Achievement, take a more holistic approach — allowing users to earn points for physical activities or even meditation and sleep. The points can then be redeemed for a cash reward.

Read the full study here.

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