Adaptive goal setting and financial incentives: a 2 × 2 factorial randomized controlled trial to increase adults’ physical activity
Emerging interventions that rely on and harness variability in behavior to adapt to individual performance over time may outperform interventions that prescribe static goals (e.g., 10,000 steps/day). The purpose of this factorial trial was to compare adaptive vs. static goal setting and immediate vs. delayed, non-contingent financial rewards for increasing free-living physical activity (PA).
A 4-month 2 × 2 factorial randomized controlled trial tested main effects for goal setting (adaptive vs. static goals) and rewards (immediate vs. delayed) and interactions between factors to increase steps/day as measured by a Fitbit Zip. Moderate-to-vigorous PA (MVPA) minutes/day was examined as a secondary outcome.
Participants (N = 96) were mainly female (77%), aged 41 ± 9.5 years, and all were insufficiently active and overweight/obese (mean BMI = 34.1 ± 6.2). Participants across all groups increased by 2389 steps/day on average from baseline to intervention phase (p < .001). Participants receiving static goals showed a stronger increase in steps per day from baseline phase to intervention phase (2630 steps/day) than those receiving adaptive goals (2149 steps/day; difference = 482 steps/day, p = .095). Participants receiving immediate rewards showed stronger improvement (2762 step/day increase) from baseline to intervention phase than those receiving delayed rewards (2016 steps/day increase; difference = 746 steps/day, p = .009). However, the adaptive goals group showed a slower decrease in steps/day from the beginning of the intervention phase to the end of the intervention phase (i.e. less than half the rate) compared to the static goals group (−7.7 steps vs. -18.3 steps each day; difference = 10.7 steps/day, p < .001) resulting in better improvements for the adaptive goals group by study end. Rate of change over the intervention phase did not differ between reward groups. Significant goal phase x goal setting x reward interactions were observed.
Adaptive goals outperformed static goals (i.e., 10,000 steps) over a 4-month period. Small immediate rewards outperformed larger, delayed rewards. Adaptive goals with either immediate or delayed rewards should be preferred for promoting PA.