The Carrot Can Help a Walking Habit Stick

Can tiny digital rewards help get Canadians in better physical shape? Data from a soon-to-be-relaunched app suggest that they can.


Frequent cell phone use has previously been linked with decreased physical activity, but when it comes to getting Canadians active, it turns out that cell phone-based rewards apps may be just what the doctor ordered.

A recent study from Western University looked into the benefits of providing small but immediate digital incentives for hitting health-based goals, and documented an increase in participants’ daily step counts over the course of one year. The results were published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The study used data from the Carrot Rewards app, which was a popular Canadian fitness app that gamified users’ daily step counts and rewarded them with loyalty points for movies or groceries. The app had received support from the Public Health Agency of Canada and was co-created by Marc Mitchell, assistant professor at Western University’s School of Kinesiology and lead author of the study.

The app worked by first tracking users’ daily step count over the course of two weeks to provide a baseline, and then rewarding users with a small digital incentive for each day they reached a personalized step goal.

Mitchell and his team analyzed data collected over the course of a year from users based in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. According to baseline measurements, nearly half of the users engaging with the app were initially categorized as physically inactive, logging fewer than 5,000 steps on average each day.

After the one-year period, Mitchell and his collaborators divided users into four categories based on their level of engagement with the app: limited, occasional, regular, and committed. These groupings were based on the number of weeks with at least four days of valid step count data logged for each user.

They found that the daily mean step count of users who were initially classified as physically inactive increased regardless of engagement level, but the increase was largest for regular and committed users of the app. Within these groups, daily mean step counts increased by 1,215 and 1,821 steps per day, respectively.

In the case of users who were already physically active prior to downloading the app, step count increases were only observed for users in the committed sub-group. These results highlight the importance not just of rewarding users for staying active, but also of keeping users engaged in the long term.

“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.”

Although the Carrot Rewards app shut down last year due to a lack of funding, Canadians looking to reward themselves for staying active may still have hope. The app is planning to relaunch in the near future, and interested users looking to boost their physical activity levels can sign up for email reminders about the upcoming launch.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.