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: 30 scientists collaborated to motivate 61,000 people to go to the gym more. They did it — but their success came with one big caveat

Don’t feel like going to the gym today? Try a fiscal stimulus.

Thirty scientists from 15 U.S. universities oversaw the physical exercise regime of 61,293 members of a U.S. fitness chain. Collaborating in small independent teams, they designed 54 different online fitness programs over four weeks.

They wanted the participants to up their game, and the one way to figure out how best to do that? Create a “megastudy” to keep as many variables as constant as possible, and apply the same standards to every person, except for the incentive.

The results of this massive study were published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal Nature. In previous studies, forecasts by impartial judges failed to predict which interventions would be most effective, the paper concluded.

“The scientists found that 45% of their interventions significantly increased weekly gym visits by 9% to 27%.”

“Different scientists test different intervention ideas in different samples using different outcomes over different time intervals,” it said. “The lack of comparability of such individual investigations limits their potential to inform policy.”

Change is possible, and it comes cheap. “Rewarding participants with a bonus of 9 cents for returning to the gym after a missed workout produced an estimated 0.40 more weekly gym visits per participant — a 27% increase in exercise,” they said.

A little extra also helps. “Second, offering participants larger incentives ($1.75) produced an estimated 0.37 more weekly gym visits per participant — a 25% increase in exercise — compared with the placebo control,” the scientists found.

“Behavioral science has encouraged people to do everything from pushups to saving money for retirement.”

The initial results were impressive: 45% of the interventions significantly increased weekly gym visits by 9% to 27%, and the No. 1 intervention offered these “micro-rewards” for going back to the gym after skipping a workout.

And now for the caveat. “Only 8% of interventions induced behavior change that was significant and measurable after the four-week intervention.” One possible explanation: People may have become accustomed to their little fiscal treats.

The authors say their paper — “Megastudies improve the impact of applied behavioural science” — aims to overcome the challenge of trying to make sense of and compare a variety of different tests and real-life experiments.

“Nudge theory suggests that small tweaks in ‘choice architecture’ can help steer people toward decisions that will benefit them.”

Behavioral science such as this has the potential to help people’s financial and physical health. The “every little helps” trope is not exactly new, and has encouraged people to do everything from pushups to saving money for retirement.

Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler’s nudge theory has helped workers bolster their retirement accounts by almost $30 billion, encouraged people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and even helped men improve their aim into urinals.

“Nudge theory” is based on the idea that small tweaks in “choice architecture” — in how choices are presented to consumers — can help steer people toward decisions that will benefit them, such as walking 10,000 steps a day during the pandemic.

“But micro-incentives work both ways: They can get people to look after their own wellbeing or buy things they don’t need.”

But these micro-incentives work both ways: They can get people to look after their own wellbeing or — as smartphone notifications so deftly illustrate — they can also tempt consumers to spend more money, and to constantly want more stuff.

In fact, earlier this week Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, invoked ancient Greek poetry — the Sirens from Homer’s “Odyssey” to be exact — to sound the alarm on contemporary consumerism.

“Today’s sirens want to charm you with seductive and insistent messages that focus on easy gains, the false needs of consumerism, the cult of physical wellness, of entertainment at all costs,” the pontiff said.

The lesson? Less push notifications — and more pushups.

Related: How a ‘self-nudge’ could help you make better money and life decisions

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