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

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - JO HART­LEY is a free­lance jour­nal­ist.

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-yearolds in de­vel­op­ing and main­tain­ing healthy habits, was de­vel­oped af­ter re­ports of a rise in obe­sity and weightre­lated 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.

Re­ward schemes are be­ing linked to fit­ness apps and de­vices.

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