Businesses have introduced reward schemes into health and fitness apps, even in the form of charity donations, but can such programs promote lasting lifestyle changes? By Jo Hartley.

Rewards and fitness apps

Reward schemes are being linked to fitness apps and devices.
Reward schemes are being linked to fitness apps and devices.
Credit: Ammantorp Photography / Alamy

Fitness-tracking apps are in the news after it was revealed Western military personnel on duty in the Middle East and elsewhere were using a socially shared analytics app named Strava, and heedlessly making public their running routes and routines around bases.

But for those without concerns about having one’s movements publicly tracked, an increasing number of businesses are testing whether incorporating rewards schemes into fitness apps can motivate users to take better care of themselves.

Loyalty, rewards and incentive programs are commonplace nowadays. Flights, discount shopping and “free” 10th coffee stamps keep us coming back for more. Could the same approach work for health?

While some health and fitness apps simply record data to aid personal goal-setting, and with others rewards allow access to the next level of workout instruction, the new crop of apps offers tangible financial rewards received on completion of personalised health or fitness challenges or when a daily target is met.

“The integration of people’s health-related activities and information technology has started a new reward-for-activity-centric era between users and businesses,” says Imon Hoque, technical director at Sitback Solutions.

Hoque says health-related apps are a natural fit with so much online activity now centred on information collection.

“The more data that companies have, the better they can analyse the market and improve their business,” he says. “Rewards for health activities is a perfect quid pro quo system where companies get what they need and users get rewarded for improving their health.”

Health insurer AIA Australia offers members a choice of rewards for staying active. By syncing activity devices such as Fitbit or Garmin to AIA’s app, members can track their fitness progress and redeem rewards when physical activity goals are met. Rewards include discounts for partnered gym memberships and flights and $5 vouchers that can be spent at partnered stores. 

“Our experience has shown that the rewards are highly correlated with participation within the program,” says Renae Smith, chief marketing officer of AIA Australia. “Over one in three members are actively engaged in the program and we believe that having the rewards supports and motivates our users.”

Smith says the life insurance company’s promotion of such a program demonstrates its interest in a healthy population, acknowledging the impact of physical inactivity and unhealthy lifestyle on the prevalence of death from non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

In 2016, Medibank teamed up with Coles to offer members 10 Flybuys points for every day they record 10,000 steps on their activity device. Similarly, Qantas recently encouraged members to earn additional Qantas points by tracking their everyday fitness activities.

For those motivated by philanthropy, AIA recently introduced an option on its app to donate weekly benefit rewards to one of three Australian charities – Black Dog Institute, Cancer Council Australia or Diabetes Australia.

Along similar lines, Charity Miles offers users a similar incentive to exercise. Every time users of its app run, walk or cycle, their phone’s GPS is accessed to record the movement. Corporate sponsors donate a few cents to charity for every mile completed. Charities include Save the Children, World Wildlife Fund, Charity: Water and Pencils of Promise. Charity Miles says its members have to date raised more than $US2.5 million.

Do such  incentives reliably influence our behaviour?

“Our brains scan the environment five times a second to respond to threat or reward,” says Ayesha Jahan Bibha, founder of business consultancy Brain The Business. “When we receive positive signals, a dopamine neurochemical is transmitted from our brains, which makes us feel happy and relaxed.”

Dopamine motivates us to repeat actions to achieve that great feeling. When these actions are reinforced with positive rewards, new connections are formed within our brains, meaning these actions become habitual and sustainable.

Such neurochemistry appears to be especially pronounced in adolescents. Apps with virtual rewards work well for adolescents because their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates cognitive, emotional and behavioural functioning, is yet to fully develop.

“The prefrontal cortex fully develops in males around their mid 20s and in females in their early 20s,” explains Bibha. “That’s why children and adolescents act on their feelings rather than logic. Getting stars, or unlocking the next level on a game or app gives them an instant dopamine hit, making them want more.”

Australian software company Oxil incorporated virtual rewards into their Challenger app, after their research reinforced that adolescents were motivated by rewards. The app, designed to aid 10- to 16-year-olds in developing and maintaining healthy habits, was developed after reports of a rise in obesity and weight-related problems across five shires in Victoria’s Great South Coast region.

“Students log their nutrition, physical activity and general wellbeing daily and gain instant feedback about their nutritional and activity breakdown,” says Oxil’s managing director, Archie Whiting. “For every activity, they earn points and achievements.”

On reaching a certain amount of points, students can unlock virtual trophies and rewards. One of the most popular rewards is a virtual pet.

“We’ve chosen rewards that encourage frequent use of the app through competition ranking, achieving recommended nutritional and physical activity levels and secret interaction-based achievements,” says Whiting. “Rewards are important as an additional incentive to use the app and achieve a high level of engagement.”

Oxil plans to introduce Challenger to other regions and audiences across Australia to help facilitate change and healthy lifestyles.

Not all reward-based apps have proved successful, and some doubt the longevity of users’ commitment.

Last July, fitness app Pact folded after a Federal Trade Commission investigation in the United States that revealed Pact had failed to deliver on their promise to pay users for adhering to personal health and fitness “pacts”.

The commission alleged that the defendants charged thousands of consumers a monetary penalty even when they had met their goals or cancelled the service. The defendants were ordered to pay back nearly $US1 million to users who were charged improperly or were yet to receive their monetary rewards.

Sydney psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, whose expertise is in the psychology of technology, says that while rewards within apps can be effective, they do have their limitations.

“I doubt that someone who’s uninterested in exercise would be incentivised for very long by app rewards,” Brewer says.

“In the short term, they might be useful for auditing habits and gaining health insights, but unless there’s significant cognitive restructuring happening to shift ingrained attitudes to exercise, then I think an app can only incentivise so much, even with rewards.”

Brewer notes that another issue with app rewards is that they create extrinsic motivation. This means that the satisfaction comes from something external, unlike intrinsic motivation whereby you feel good for doing something because you chose to do so independent of a reward.

“It’s hard to create rewards that appeal in a meaningful way and benefit a range of people,” says Brewer. “Opportunities to donate may be more attractive to people who are already fit and active, whereas people who really struggle with behaviour modification will need more specialised and targeted rewards.

“One of the biggest issues with any behaviour change is sustainability, so many people will fail to maintain levels of activity, regardless of rewards.”

Whether businesses remain committed to developing rewards-based apps for health and fitness remains to be seen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2018 as "Sweat shopping".

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Jo Hartley is a freelance journalist.

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