To Increase Group Exercise, Penn Study Suggests Rewarding the Individual and the Team

Financial incentives aimed at increasing physical activity among teams are most effective when the incentives are rewarded for a combination of individual and team performance, according to new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The study, which examined the effectiveness of offering monetary rewards as part of workplace wellness programs, showed that people offered "a combined incentive" were nearly twice likely to achieve their goals as a control group. People rewarded based on only individual or team performance were no more likely to increase exercise than the control group who did not receive any incentives. Results are published today in the Journal of General Internal Medicine .

"Many employer-based wellness programs are using team-based approaches to engage their workforce towards achieving health goals, but the best way to offer rewards within these programs to change behavior is unknown," said lead author Mitesh S. Patel, MD, MBA, MS , an assistant professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School, and a staff physician at the Crescenz VA Medical Center. "The results of our clinical trial indicate that team-based incentives are more effective if they are designed to balance rewarding individual accomplishments and reinforcing elements of being on a team such as accountability and peer support."

In the study, 304 participants were given a goal of 7,000 steps per day for 26 weeks, with daily feedback on whether or not they achieved the goal. Progress was tracked using a smartphone app. Teams were randomly assigned to the control group or one of three incentive groups in which a drawing was held every other day for the first 13 weeks where the winning team could receive up to $50 per person. Participants could only collect the $50 if they achieved the step goal (individual incentive arm), all four members of their team achieved the step goal (team incentive arm), or a combination in which individuals got $20 if they achieved the goal and $10 more for each of their three teammates who reached the goal (combined incentive arm). During the second half of the study, all participants continued to receive daily feedback, but without financial incentives.

Results of the study revealed that participants in the combined incentive group achieved their goal 35 percent of the time, nearly double the success rate for the control and team incentive groups (18 and 17 percent, respectively), and still higher than the average success rate for participants rewarded based on individual performance (25 percent). Compared to the control group, participants receiving the combined incentive had 1,446 more steps per day.

More than 96 percent of participants completed the full 26-week study despite no financial incentive during the 13-week follow-up period. The authors suggest the high engagement rate may be due to the smartphone-based approach to data collection and the design of the study which emphasized encouraging everyone to reach a minimum of 7000 steps rather than setting a higher goal that only the already active could achieve.

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