How to Motivate Physical Activity: Are rewards the key?

Kids Run

Photo courtesy of Terren in Virginia’s photostream on Flickr:

It can be hard for kids – and families – to make physical activity a regular part of daily life.. But the right amount of incentives can help make physical activity both rewarding and fun.

The truth is, kids do all sorts of fantastic things spontaneously, without being rewarded for it. One morning, for example, they might declare they want to be the next JK Rowling – and then spend hours writing stories. For parents, it can be particularly encouraging to see kids remain dedicated to a worthwhile task, an important life skill for any of us.

The question is: How can we foster this type of intrinsic motivation, the impulse and determination to continue just because something feels right, to help establish patterns of healthy behavior, like regular physical activity?

These days, kids are less likely to be physically active than kids in previous generations. Sadly, it’s the exception for kids to run around and get daily exercise, not the norm. For many parents it’s hard to find safe parks or free time to drive children to afternoon sports practice. The result is that sedentary behavior and its negative impact on kids’ health has become a serious problem.

That’s not because kids aren’t intrinsically motivated to be active. They are just more extrinsically motivated to be sedentary. Entertainment conglomerates target multi-million dollar advertising campaigns at kids, making sedentary behavior very rewarding. It’s hard for the traditional red ball or hula-hoop to compete with the flashiness of Hollywood’s latest global marketing spree.

So, what if we offered a bit of incentive to kids to get up and moving as a way to tap into that sense of intrinsic motivation? That’s the idea behind Zamzee’s use of rewards as a tool to make physical activity more compelling. Modest extrinsic motivators – earning points and badges, leveling up, acquiring Zamz to select items from the Zamzee reward shops – are built into Zamzee as ways to help movement out-compete the allure of sedentary behavior.

From a psychological perspective, the key is to avoid over-rewarding behavior, which can undermine intrinsic motivation. In line with Daniel Pink’s research on motivation, most rewards on are small, which means they never become the sole focus of the Zamzee experience. If kids earned huge rewards for mere small changes in their behavior, that behavioral change wouldn’t stick. Instead, kids earn little prizes that are just enough to keep them continuously motivated and engaged. Some bonus points here, a $5 gift card there, maybe an exciting gadget if they’ve been working really hard. These rewards are enticing enough to capture the attention of kids and to get them engaged in regular physical activity in a way they weren’t before.

Which brings us back to our original question: can rewards motivate physical activity and create long-lasting changes in habit? Based on scientific research and real-life experience motivating kids, we believe the answer is YES!

Racers cross finish line in 5K run for Navy Chief birthday.

Photo courtesy of Official US Navy Imagery’s stream on Flickr:

For those of you who want to go a bit deeper on the subject, here are a couple of useful resources:

11 thoughts on “How to Motivate Physical Activity: Are rewards the key?

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