/ Health, Technology

How incentivisation helps you get healthier


We all need a bit of extra help to develop healthier habits, so would a free cinema trip motivate you to get off the sofa a bit more, or are you concerned about sharing too much data?

If my fitness tracker records that I have taken more than 7,000 steps in a day, my healthcare provider gives me points, which I can redeem to get free cinema tickets, coffee or iTunes vouchers.

This is an example of incentivisation, as the promise of a reward makes me much more likely to reach my target. And I do look forward to the pleasure of a free coffee every Friday – although I try to steer away from the temptation of a strawberry and cream iced coffee to keep the calories off!

The science behind trackers

The theory underpinning how incentives work comes from psychological, ecological and behavioural economics research.

People generally want to do what is in their long-term interests (get fit and lose weight), but usually succumb to short-term temptation (sit on the sofa and eat cake). An incentive gives a smaller, immediate reward for taking a step in the right direction and, over time, can help us to reach that long-term goal.

Incentives can play a significant part in helping to improve your health, but don’t just need to take the form of financial rewards. Purely knowing that you have a device counting your steps can give you that extra psychological push to walk more, and many devices will give you motivational messages to help you stay on track.

Incentivising healthy habits in this way might have some downsides, however. There could be potential privacy concerns with companies holding large amounts of personal data and what they might do with it – could the data be used to calculate your health insurance premiums, or could the information be accessible to third parties?

On balance though, if incentives encourage people to exercise and play an active part in improving their health, that can only be a good thing.

Testing the trackers

We’ve so far reviewed over 30 fitness trackers, with more to come later this year.

We assess their accuracy to record steps tracked, distance covered and calories used among other elements and additionally look at how easy they are to use. We’ve also uncovered some Best Buy fitness trackers that go the extra mile.

How do you motivate yourself to develop healthier habits? Do you use devices or apps to help, and would you be motivated by points or vouchers?


My phone records approximately how far I walk each day and it provides a useful reminder if I’m not getting much exercise. I’m not interested in measuring anything else. I get plenty of exercise in my life and eat sensibly most of the time. For short journeys I walk rather than taking the car.

Hopefully fitness trackers will be a long-term craze and we can tackle the growing obesity problem in the UK.

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I use a phone app to count my steps every day and estimate how many miles I’ve walked. The app also counts the calories I’ve burned, but I don’t pay attention to that. The app motivates me to make sure I do my 10,000 steps a day (and much more at the weekend) and it’s fun to try and guess how many steps I walked on a long weekend walk.

Motivational messages would just burst me and incentivise me to throw the device out the window.

Who’s your healthcare provider, Thomas? Mine’s the NHS and I don’t think they’ll give me free coffee for keeping fit. Maybe they should??? If we do the maths, it will probably cost the NHS much less to motivate people with such rewards than to treat obesity and co caused by couch-potatodom (sounds like something you could eat).

I would have sworn that health insurance premiums were already calculated according to your state of health. Private health care doesn’t have the same principles as the NHS, does it? To begin with, it is neither universal nor equitable. But that’s another story…

Is it better to measure activity or better to measure passivity?

I think the strategic solution for fitness motivation is for the government to issue special overpants containing uncomfortable protruberances to deter people from sitting down for long periods. The bumps would at first be imperceptible but they would progressively expand and irritate the longer they were compressed. They would start to recover their latent state when an upright posture was adopted and would become comfortable again following a period of activity. Wearing them outside other clothes would (a) ensure that wearing them was not shirked, and (b) promote the desired superhero image. A range of colours and designs would enhance the costume’s allure and make weight loss a go-for-it lifestyle choice among the target population.

I hate ads normally, but I’d love to see the ad for your device, John. Billy Connolly would be my choice to try out the overpants and describe the sensations, the benefits, the different designs and colours etc.

For some people the costume would have to be sewn on for a few months though, wouldn’t it, otherwise it would be too easy never to put it back on. You would have to have technology added on to deal with the exhaust , but that shouldn’t be a problem.

I had a good laugh at your comments, Sophie. One problem I did not originally contemplate was the consequences of achievement – if people actually get off their backsides and do some activity they could lose weight and their over-pants would become baggy. Not the flattering image I had in mind. Back to the drawing board. The Big Yin would make a super model for these outfits but hasn’t he always been rather on the skinny side? How about Robbie Coltrane? I have postponed my Dragons’ Den slot for the time being.

Comment repositioned.

I’m not sure how much good ordinary walking is for you. I was told only when you began to get out of breath – more strenuous exercise – was real good being done.

It seems to me that many sports are the best exercise – cycling, swimming, tennis, football and so on……Instead of sitting down watching them it would be better to take part. That needs local facilities and trainers, at a cost to suit all. Instead of pouring millions into elite sports, maybe a good chunk could be devoted to enhancing the health of the nation. Perhaps add a levy on professional sporting events to put into the pot.

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I was hoping you were going to tell us how it works in America, Duncan. You usually do so I am afraid I shall have to wait and see before I make any comment on this item.

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Thanks Duncan. It seems that the system in America is similar to ours. I prefer an opt-in system to the Scottish opt-out proposal and have registered for organ donation. I am not aware of any serious proposal to change the system in the rest of the UK. Perhaps the Scottish hospitals are not getting enough organs through the opt-in system and need to make a procedural change. I would have anticipated considerable resistance to a universal opt-out requirement but if the Scottish government is introducing this in the light of public consultation then it must have considerable support.

I am generally in good condition so my body is not much use for research purposes and my organs have served a full term already so will be of little value for replacement purposes. It will be up to any surviving next of kin to decide what happens if the NHS doesn’t want me.