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Find a gym buddy – not letting them down may be the most powerful incentive

16 October 2017

Spreading information about the benefits of exercise – including how it reduces the risk of chronic diseases and improves mental health and wellbeing, from sleep quality to self-esteem – hasn’t been enough to change people’s behaviour.

Only 30 to 40 per cent of adults in the UK say they get the recommended amount of physical activity per week, and this figure drops to just 5 per cent when using accelerometers to measure movement. It’s a similar story even for people who have made the effort to join a gym – in a recent poll, a third of members reported visiting their gym three times a year or less. It seems we need to get more creative to persuade people to get active.

To test out some innovative psychological approaches, a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics selected 181 infrequent gym-goers at the University of West Chester, who went on average less than once a week before the experiment. All students at the university have free access to the fitness centre, and their attendance is automatically recorded when they swipe in.

The researchers tested three types of intervention, in isolation or combined, over the course of three weeks. First was the financial incentive: everyone (except the control group) was entered into a lottery, with a chance to win an $80 Amazon voucher if they met their weekly exercise goal of three 30-minute sessions. Second, some participants were partnered up, and were only eligible for the lottery if both members of the team had met the goal.

Finally, half of the participants were given information midweek about how many other individuals or teams had already reached the weekly target. In all, there were five participant groups: the control, individuals with information (about others’ attendance), individuals without information, teams with information and teams without information.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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