Fitness isn’t a one-time gig.  It’s a journey that can take a lot of time and a lot of effort.  Some people will work at their fitness because that in itself is a reward but others may feel that their motivation is only as good as the incentive they’re getting to keep showing up and working hard. 

But can incentives help people to stay motivated to work out? 

What is an Incentive? 

An incentive is something that motivates someone to do something.  It’s the promise of a reward when an action is completed.  For example, it could be a bonus for an employee who completes a project on time or it could be the promise of a trip to a theme park if a child achieves a good end-of-school report.  

It’s the carrot in the carrot and stick method.

Using reward to change unhealthy lifestyle habits isn’t new.  Financial incentives have been useful in helping people to give up smoking, for example, but with an obesity crisis looming, companies are now looking at using rewards as a way to incentivise people into leading a more active lifestyle.

Why are Incentives Used in Fitness?

Incentives are used in fitness as a means of motivating a person into exercising.  We know the UK has a rising obesity epidemic and that people aren’t moving as much as they should be.  And yet many people say they’d like to be fitter and healthier.  How many people sign up to join a gym in January?  There’s a disconnect between what people say they want and then what they’re willing to do.  The problem with fitness is that it’s not a one-off. It’s a journey and often we don’t see the results of our efforts until much further down the line. Incentives offer people a stop-gap: the promise of a reward much sooner. 

Isn’t Getting Fitter Incentive Enough?

Not for everyone.  We’ve all had days where we’d rather not get up off the sofa and go to the gym.  Those of us who enjoy going to the gym will persevere and go regardless. We might skip the odd session but then settle back into a routine.  But not everyone enjoys exercise and without an incentive that’s both tangible and motivational, it’s easy to give up. 

What is Incentive Theory and How Can We Apply It to Fitness?

Incentive theory is based on the idea that people are more likely to behave in ways that attract reward than in ways that can lead to negative consequences.  

Fitness often comes with in-built incentives. For example, if I complete my 5K training plan, I’ll be able to run the race comfortably. 

But it’s the kind of incentive that doesn’t resonate with a lot of people.  It doesn’t seem like an incentive at all. 

Some fitness apps incentivise with virtual trophies or rewards. The NIKE+ running app gives you a new achievement each time you beat a previous record: your fastest 10km or longest run, etc. 

These aren’t tangible rewards but they do provide a positive reinforcement especially if you’re exercising alone.  They work but they’re less likely to work over sustained periods for people who don’t work out regularly.

Other companies have introduced fitness incentives that they hope will help people on their journey by providing real-life rewards. 

Vitality health insurance provider has a rewards system that gives users cinema tickets and discounts with Amazon Prime. 

Sweat Coin offers a digital currency that can be spent in an online marketplace to a person depending on the distance they’ve walked each day.

Energym has developed the GymCoin app to reward users for their clean-energy generation at the gym.  It’s also developing at-home spin bikes with the same technology so that people can power their homes using the electricity generated from their workout.

Some gyms have a loyalty scheme and if you sign up to a certain number of classes then you could get the next one free or at a reduced rate. 

How Incentives Can Influence a Fitness Journey

Incentives aren’t just about physical or digital rewards.  People use the gym because they want something. They like feeling stronger or healthier.  For people already attending the gym, it’s useful to leverage incentives so that they’ll not only keep returning but that they won’t also get bored.  Part of this will involve establishing a goal or a target. Reaching that target or goal becomes the incentive to keep showing up.  For gyms or trainers, it could be sitting down with members and talking about what they want to achieve:  weight loss or more body strength or a personal best or the ability finish a race or event.  Incentives are a way for businesses to engage with their clients and to take an active interest in the progress of fee-paying users.  Getting people to their goals using a rewards system helps establish brand loyalty, too. 

Some people were born gym-ready but other people take their time.  Incentives can help get people through the door or into that first class.  Often, the love (or love-hate) for exercise will come later.  You can’t tell someone how great working out will make them feel.  They need to experience it, but to get to that stage you may have to incentivise their participation. 

Incentives don’t just have to be about gaining a reward, either.  Studies in the US have shown that people are often more motivated by the thought of losing something than gaining it. 

For example, if you didn’t use your electricity generating spin bike then you won’t generate free power for you home.  You’ll have to pay more for your energy bills.  It’s a bigger incentive than receiving a virtual trophy or even a free cinema ticket and could help influence the fitness journey of those who prefer to workout for a tangible reward rather than for fitness sake alone.

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