Could an ‘exercise Oyster card’ boost fitness?

Exercise points meant prizes for half the workers taking part in the study

If your employer offered you financial rewards for hitting the gym or walking to work, would you do more exercise? This is the question researchers were trying to answer when they carried out a study to see what effect an innovative physical activity ‘loyalty card’ had on workers’ exercise levels.

The study used the loyalty card and a tracking system, with the same technology as London’s Oyster cards, to see whether workers who were offered shopping vouchers as an incentive to do physical activity were more likely to do more exercise than their colleagues who weren’t offered incentives.

The researchers found that having rewards led to a short-term improvement in the amount of time workers were doing exercise each week.

The results of the Northern Ireland study were presented at a new conference dedicated to the latest public health research on Friday (November 23), with researchers from Queen’s University Belfast saying that the study “has important implications for physical activity promotion and business engagement in health”.“Physical inactivity is a major public health concern, and more innovative approaches are urgently needed to address it,” they explained, adding that the UK government supports using incentives and “so-called nudges” to encourage healthy behaviour.

The trial involved developing the physical activity loyalty card (PAL) scheme, which used a tracking system with web-based monitoring using the palcard.

Researchers recruited 406 office workers from two buildings at Northern Ireland’s main government offices, and employees were randomly allocated to either an incentive group or a no-incentive group.

Sensors were placed along footpaths and the gym in the workplace, and participants scanned their loyalty card at the sensor, which logged the activity, when undertaking physical activities like walking.

The number of minutes of physical activity were automatically archived and sent via a regular text message for free to each participant’s mobile phone or via email.

Participants in the incentive group monitored their physical activity, collected points, and received shopping vouchers according to the number of minutes of physical activity completed over the 12-week period.

Those in the no-incentive group used their loyalty card to self-monitor their physical activity but were not able to earn points or receive rewards.

Researchers obtained follow-up data from 87% (353) of the participants at week 12 and 84% (341) at six months. They found that at week 12, after the experiment had finished, participants in the incentive group increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity by a median of 60 minutes per week compared with 30 minutes per week in the no-incentive group.

At six months, the incentive group workers had increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity by 30 minutes per week compared to what they used to do before the study began, in contrast with 0 minutes per week in the no-incentive group.

However, the researchers noted “no significant differences” between the two groups regarding the use of the loyalty card during the 12-week trial period. The study found that workers in the incentive group did an average of 60 minutes of physical activity per week with their loyalty card in week one, although this fell to 24 minutes by the end of the trial period at week 12, and this was similar to those in the no-incentive group with 60 minutes in week one, and 20 minutes in week 12.

Intelligent Health, the makers of the sensor card technology used in the study, are reported to be in talks with Transport for London about using the Oyster card network in order to roll out the exercise project across London.

The conference was organised by the Royal Society of Medicine, in association with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the National Heart Forum and the Lancet, with the aim of showcasing the “exceptional talent and creativity in the UK public health research community”.

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© Melanie Hall 2017