Love to treat yourself for making it to the gym on a rough day? Make sure you're motivating yourself the right way

By Macaela Mackenzie
February 16, 2016

No matter how much you love squeezing in a good sweat sesh, sometimes you need a little extra incentive to get you to the gym (whose hellish idea was it to sign up for those 6 a.m. bootcamp classes, anyway?). But how you incentivize physical activity matters for your motivation, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine looked at the way financial rewards impact our motivation to get physical, and they found that the way we position the incentive makes a big difference. Specifically, they looked at how workplace wellness programs-which typically reward employees for meeting certain health requirements-can be more effective, given that half of U.S. adults still aren't getting the daily recommended dose of physical activity (not cool). (We've got Health Tips from 10 Top Corporate Wellness Programs.)

All of the study participants were given a goal of 7,000 steps per day over a 26-week period. To test fitness motivations, the researchers set up three different incentive structures: The first group received a couple of bucks for every day they met their goal, the second group was entered into a daily lottery for the same amount if they met the goal, and the third group received a lump sum at the beginning of the month and had to pay back part of the money for each day they failed to meet their goal.

The results were pretty crazy. Offering a daily financial incentive or a lottery did nothing to boost motivation among the participants-they met the daily step goal only 30-35 percent of the time, which is no more than a control group of participants who were offered zero incentives. Meanwhile, the group who risked losing their financial reward was 50 percent more likely to meet their daily goals than the control group. That's a serious motivational boost. (P.S. Another study says Punishment Can Be a Key Incentive for Exercise.)

"Our findings demonstrate that the potential of losing a reward is a more powerful motivator," said senior author Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD, a professor of Medicine and Health Care Management and director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.

You can harness the idea behind the study for yourself with apps like Pact, which fines you every time you fail to meet your weekly fitness goals. Plus, you'll get an extra cash reward when you crush it. Spend that hard-earned dough on a sexy new sports bra and it's a real win-win. (Double up on your wins with The Best Rewards Programs for Fitness Fashionistas!)

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