If I gave you one dollar every day to exercise would you do it? How about if I took a buck away from you if you didn’t exercise? Would you be more likely to get up and move?

A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to see what would better motivate overweight and obese adults to walk 7,000 steps a day as part of their weight-loss program: Money given or money taken away. In this 13-week study, one group recorded their progress without receiving any reward. Another group was paid $1.42 a day for reaching their goal. A third group was given $42 at the beginning of the study and had $1.42 removed when they didn’t meet the goal. Mandy Oaklander summarizes the results:

People who had to give up money if they didn’t exercise enough met their goal 50% more of the time than people who were paid to exercise.


Those who were tracked and given nothing, and those who received the $1.42 after they walked 7,000 steps were motivated less; 30-35% of them met their goal. “Financial incentives framed as a loss” were apparently more powerful and effective in helping people reach their exercise goals. Oaklander says financial incentives are important features of health insurance wellness programs:

Past research backs up the idea that financial loss is a powerful incentive for weight loss. Findings like these—that leaving cash on the table could be enough to nudge people to their feet—are potentially useful to companies, which increasingly use corporate wellness programs to encourage their employees to get healthier. “There’s often a presumption that just tracking activity by itself will help you change your behavior,” Patel says. “But in most cases, for the people who really need to benefit the most—those who are overweight or obese—these programs really need to be combined with an effective engagement strategy.”