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Can rewards pursuade us to walk more?

24 July 2012

With experts suggesting that inactivity is causing as many deaths as smoking, exercise has once again been raised as an urgent health issue. But what role should communications play in helping health care professionals, the government and charities to get their message across and get people active?

Reluctance to exercise means that a third of the population are not taking the 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity recommended as a weekly minimum. The consequences of our sedentary lifestyles are becoming more apparent too with a recent Lancet report showing that 5.3million people die annually as a result of inactivity.

A brisk walk or fairly gentle cycle ride are both suggested as simple forms of exercise that can contribute to good health.  So if everyone walked just 30 minutes every day during the working week, the population would be realising the minimum target. It seems like a modest goal but in reality achieving long term behaviour change is proving to be a significant challenge.

Walking has to be one of the simplest forms of exercise; you don’t need any special equipment, it can be done anywhere, its social, it saves you money (on petrol and bus fares) and it is accessible to the vast majority of the population. All of this is before you even consider the positive benefits to mental and physical health. But unless you have a canine friend, walking is unlikely to be top of your priority list. In a recent report the BMA suggested that walking has reduced 19% between 1985 and 2009.

There are many campaigns and organisations championing walking including The Ramblers, Walking for Health and more recently the Government’s Walk4Life programme. But perhaps one of the most interesting developments is the rise of technology and reward schemes designed to encourage walking.

For example Step2Get set up check points on walking routes to schools so that children in Wimbledon can check into them using cards, and get vouchers and prizes for partaking. Another example is Transport For London and Recylebank’s Re:route mobile app that rewards users that cycle or walk to work. The app uses GPS data to automatically track journeys made by bike or on foot.

These schemes are still in their infancy, so whether they can influence significant numbers to change their ways is unclear. But technology could be a significant aid in dragging this oldest of traditions into the modern world. One thing’s for certain, communications must change. Simply telling people about the deadly risks of inactivity will not be enough… otherwise we’d be living in a smoker free world by now.

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