Does Money Influence Healthy Living?

There are a few challenges when you are part of a team that is not in your area. Planned rides that start at 8:00 AM for local people is easy, but for me it means getting up at 4:30 AM to get dressed and load car and drive for two hours, which also means added expenses for gas money, wear and tear, etc. The good thing about this is that it affords me lots of thinking time. This can be good or bad I guess, depending on where my mind goes, but what I have been doing recently is listening to NPR Radio. It is easy on my drive because the Tampa station lasts me almost all the way, and when it starts fading out I can switch to the Orlando station which is on the same feed and never lose whatever story is going on. I am not saying I always agree with what the stories are about. Far from it. But I like listening to alternate points of view from time to time. I find it a bit ridiculous to disagree or not like things without hearing all sides. Kind of like people saying how bad the Batman v Superman movie was going to be without ever seeing it.

Anyway, last Sunday the story was about a study that had been conducts on the affect of money on healthy living. Coming from a research background I find these type of things fascinating, so I settled into my drive and focused on it. The study hypothesis was that people would be more likely to stay on a healthy goal if they were paid for it. I have often wondered this myself in a different vein, but I will get into that at the end. This study was set up as 4 arms. The set goal was 7,000 steps, measured via wrist worn devices and uploaded at the end of the day to a database. The arms were:

  1. Those who met the 7,000 step goal were given praise in social media
  2. Those who met the 7,000 step goal were paid $42 at the end of the month
  3. Those who met the 7,000 step goal were paid $1.40 each day
  4. Participants were paid $42 at the beginning of the month and they had to pay $1.40 for each day they didn’t meet the 7,000 step goal

Participants were randomly placed in one of the 4 groups and measured for one month. The results were:

  1. 25% of participants met the 7,000 steps each day
  2. 35% of participants met the 7,000 steps each day
  3. 36% of participants met the 7,000 steps each day
  4. 45% of participants met the 7,000 steps each day

There was no statistical significance between the first three results, but a large one between the first three and the fourth.

So what does this mean?

Basically, it shows that PAYING someone to be healthy works far less than TAKING from them if they don’t perform. Even when the money was not really out of their own pocket, the fact that they were LOSING something by not performing meant more to them than gaining something.


It made me think of incentive programs that some companies have started doing to get people to lose weight, eat healthy, stop smoking. All of these programs are based on the reward system.

“If you lose 15 pounds we will lower your health insurance payments by $25 a month”

“If you stop smoking you will save money on life insurance premiums”

A study conducted and reported in the Journal of Health Affairs also came to similar conclusions, reasoning that company incentive programs often fall flat with workers due to inclusion in benefits instead of a separate check, required weigh-in’s in front of peers, and perhaps not enough money being offered (this study was a total of $550).

It also made me think of a reward vs. punishment approach to racing in my own life. I read constantly that a motivator should be a reward system, i.e. if you run this 4 miles you get donuts, or other such nonsense. It’s all people think about isn’t it? Do something healthy and reward yourself with something unhealthy. Because … “you earned it”.

Right. OK.

What if you took the opposite approach?

“If I do not complete today’s training I will have to pay my trainer $50”

“I will complete the sprint triathlon in under 2 hours or I will give $100 to the race charity”

Would that work better?

I know that personally dangling some type of reward in front of my face doesn’t work. The reward is something I do not have, so “losing” it means nothing. I didn’t have it in the first place so there is really nothing to lose. But take away something that I DO have, like money, comfort, convenience, etc.? Well … you may get my attention then.

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