Financial and Social Incentives Get Older Adults Walking

Older man and woman walking in park

Many studies have demonstrated significant health benefits from walking–including decreased risk of heart disease, obesity, hypertension and premature mortality–but fewer than half of all adults achieve recommended levels of physical activity. The authors engaged in one of the first few studies to examine whether incentive programs could effectively motivate those over the age of 65, who are least likely to be physically active, to exercise more.

Their study provided 94 interested, healthy adults aged 65 and older with a digital pedometer, walking goals, and weekly feedback on their progress. The partcipants were randomized into four groups: control (they received weekly feedback only), financial incentives (they received payment of $20 each week they met walking goals), social goal (they received a $20 donation to a charity of choice each week they met walking goals); and combined (each week they met walking goals, they received $20 that they could keep, donate to a charity of choice, or divide between the two).

During the 16-week intervention period, participants in all three other groups met goals more often than did the controls, showing that financial incentives, charitable donations and both together all increased walking and helped people maintain the new behavior. When the incentive period ended, all groups dropped down to walking levels seen in the control group.

“Our research finds that goals and incentives are valuable tactics in helping older adults live a healthy lifestyle,” said study lead author Karen Glanz, PhD, MPH. She co-led the study Jason Karlawish, MD, who noted that “walking is safe, free, and readily available–making these intervention initiatives a sustainable way to better health.”


Authors: Kristin A. Harkins, BA; Jeffrey T. Kullgren, MD, MS, MPH; Scarlett L. Bellamy, ScD; Jason Karlawish, MD; Karen Glanz, PhD, MPH in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.