Threat of money taken away encourages exercise, study finds

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Are your exercise goals for the new year fading in February? You might think that earning money for your work-out would keep you going. A new study finds the opposite; the threat of having money taken away if you don't exercise really works.

Andrew Dorman's employer, Burns & McDonnell, makes it easier for him to work out with a fitness center at company headquarters.

"Work out 45 minutes, there's a shower available so you can shower up and go back to work," said Dorman.

When employees are hired, they get a discount upfront on their health insurance. Exercise is one way they can earn points to keep the discount. If they don't earn the points, they lose the discount for the next year. The benefits manager says the discount is in the $500 to $1,000 range. Robin Bub says it's been effective in encouraging employees to practice healthy habits.

"It hurts a little bit to lose it versus if they come in paying a certain amount and then you offer them a discount," said Bub.

New research in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows the threat of losing money is the way to get people to exercise more. The study found it resulted in a 50 percent increase in fitness goals being met. It was more effective than giving people money after they exercised. In fact, that was no more effective than giving people nothing.

"But if they're already receiving it, they're more willing to maybe make that behavior change so they can keep it going forward," said Bub.

Dorman says he'd exercise and practice other healthy habits without any financial incentive.

"But for people that see the incentive, they're like, 'I need to get on top of my health' and really try to focus on getting their points," he said.

So they don't lose money.

The researchers say more than 80 percent of large employers now offer financial incentives to encourage worker participation in wellness programs, and the new findings show employers what works.