Study: Rewards apps get Canadians moving

With the amount of time Canadians spend using their smartphones being linked to an increase in sedentary behaviour, it may seem counterintuitive that an app can lead to enhanced physical activity.

However, recent Western-led research has shown that the use of commercial apps providing small but immediate financial incentives can help people increase their activity levels over the long term, especially among those who are the least active.

According to a new study led by Kinesiology professor Marc Mitchell, the Carrot Rewards app – that he helped develop – lifted more than 100,000 Canadians out of the ‘high-risk’ inactivity category.

“The take-home message is that physical activity apps can drive long-term physical activity change, but user engagement is absolutely imperative” Mitchell said. “By using tiny daily rewards and individualized step goals, we saw 60 per cent of users engaging for at least six months and saw some users boost their daily step count by as many as 2,000.”

The study, Commercial app use linked with sustained physical activity in two Canadian provinces: a 12-month quasi-experimental study, was recently published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The study utilized data from the app and determined that providing as little as four cents a day for achieving individual goals was associated with an increased weekly daily step count. The effect was most evident for participants, based in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, who were physically inactive and more engaged.

The most committed users of the app saw an average increased daily step count of 1,821, while those who used it consistently took 1,251 more steps per day.

The health benefits of consistent moderate-to-vigorous physical activity are well established, but global rates of people engaging in these behaviours remain low, due largely to the fact that exercise is hard and our built environments discourage it.

With new research indicating that health benefits are not just reserved for higher-intensity, harder-to-achieve types of physical activity, the ability to encourage a greater portion of the population to be more active, even at low levels of intensity, is an important step forward.

“From a public health perspective, a 1 per cent reduction in the number of Canadians classified as physically inactive would yield annual health care savings of $2.1 billion,” Mitchell said. “If we generalize our findings to the larger Carrot Rewards user base (1,046,185 as of April 2019), then we estimate that the number of Canadians classified as physically inactive was reduced by 0.3 per cent (about 100,000 Canadians).”

Perhaps not surprising but the study also showed Canadians walked less in the winter, but not when using the app.