Encouraging Physical Activity: 10,000 Steps & Smartphones

Despite the overwhelmingly positive relationship between physical activity and health outcomes, research from the British Heart Foundation (BHF, 2017) shows that around 39% of UK adults are failing to meet Government recommendations for physical activity. This means that a staggering 20 million Britons do not make exercise an important part of their lifestyles.

According to the latest health surveys:

  • Around 11.8 million women across the UK are insufficiently active, compared to around 8.3 million men.
  • Overall women are 36% more likely to be classified physically inactive then men.
  • In Northern Ireland almost half (46%) of the adult population – that is around 650,000 people – are physically inactive.
  • In Scotland almost two fifths (37%) of the adult population – that’s around 1.6 million people – are physically inactive.
  • In Wales over two fifths (42%) of the adult population – over 1 million people – are physically inactive.
  • According to a BHF survey, around 60% of adults are unaware of the Government’s physical activity guidelines.

So, how can we incentivise people to exercise more, and would it help to reward people who do?

“Walking is simple, free and 1 of the easiest ways to get more active, lose weight and become healthier.” (NHS, 2019).

The answer is yes, according to a study (Patel et al., 2016) which found that allocating rewards for both individual and team performance is the most effective way of increasing physical activity. The study also highlighted the value of smartphones in monitoring people’s exercise programmes.

The study consisted of a 13-week trial, followed by a 13-week follow-up period in which a group of 304 employees from an organisation in Philadelphia undertook a challenge to take at least 7,000 steps each day.

Anyway, the participants were divided into four groups:

  1. A control group;
  2. A group in which rewards were based on individual performance;
  3. Another group in which rewards were based on the team’s combined effort; and
  4. A group in which rewards were based on a combination of individual and team performance.

Each day a winning team was paid according to the incentive allocation applicable to them, but only if the step goal was achieved.

The results indicated that the combined incentive scheme worked best at getting people to exercise more. Participants in this group averaged 5,280 steps per day, which was 1,446 steps more than the control group, while the individual and team incentive schemes proved no different to the control group.

According to Dr Mitesh Patel, lead author of the study, ‘compared to the control group, the combined incentive nearly doubled the time participants met their physical activity goals; 35 per cent versus 18 per cent of days.’

These findings suggest that a combination of rewards works best in encouraging exercise and that team-based incentives should also reward individual accomplishments and reinforce accountability and peer support to a team.

The study also looked at the role of smartphones in monitoring a person’s physical activity. Researchers found that 96% of the participants completed the full 26-week study, even though incentives were not offered in the 13-week follow-up period. It is believed that this was due to the smartphone-based approach to data collection, which offered a hassle-free and more objective way to monitor physical activity.

Patel concluded, ‘The findings provide a better understanding of how team-based models and incentives can be used to change people’s behaviour towards better health, and how physical activity interventions and wellness programs can be better designed.’ In addition, ‘It also indicates the promise of smartphones to track outcomes when combined with a behavioural change intervention.’

In the UK, NHS choices recommend that we each take 150 minutes of active exercise per week, this includes brisk walking. 10,000 steps per day is very likely to ensure that you exceed this goal (Durham University, 2019). It has been reported that the average person, in the UK, walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps each day.

In another study, as part of the TV programme ‘The Truth About Getting Fit’, it was suggested that a programme known as Active 10 may be better.

  • 10,000 Steps Target:
    • The 10,000-step target equates to around five miles in a day.
    • Studies suggest, that although 2 out of 3 may hit their 10,000 step target, that people struggle with the time commitment and hitting the target.
  • Active 10:
    • With Active 10 you do not need to count steps.
    • You simply aim to do three brisk 10-minute walks a day.
    • Adds up to around 1.5 miles or around 3,000 steps.

In the TV programme, the Active 10 group did 30% more ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ than the 10,000-step group, even though they moved for less time. The Active 10 group also walked together, so community and team-based working factors may be at play.


BHF (British Heart Foundation). (2017) Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviour Report 2017. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.bhf.org.uk/-/media/files/research/heart-statistics/physical-inactivity-report—mymarathon-final.pdf. [Accessed: 08 September, 2019].

Mosley, M. (2018) Michael Mosley: ‘Forget walking 10,000 steps a day’. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42864061. [Accessed: 08 September, 2019].

NHS. (2019) Walking for Health. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/walking-for-health/. [Accessed: 08 September, 2019].

Patel, M.S., Asch, D.A., Rosin, R., Small, D.S., Bellamy, S.L., Eberbach, K., Walters, K.J., Haff, N., Lee, S.M., Wesby, L., Hoffer, K., Shuttleworth, D., Taylor, D.H., Hilbert, V., Zhu, J., Yang., L., Wang, X. & Volpp, K.G. (2016) Individual versus team-based financial incentives to increase physical activity: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 31(7), pp.746-754.


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