By Published: Dec. 22, 2017

Doctoral candidate wins Visionary Grant to determine if timely monetary incentives encourage exercise as well as they foster better eating habits

Casey Gardiner’s research has suggested that monetary rewards encouraged people to eat more fruits and vegetables. With a newly awarded grant from the American Psychological Foundation, she plans to see if the same kind of reward prompts people to exercise.

Gardiner, a doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies how psychological factors, such as reward processing and motivation, relate to people’s health behaviors, especially while they are receiving monetary incentives to behave in healthier ways. 


Casey Gardiner

Gardiner is one of nine recipients of the Visionary Grant, a research initiative by the American Psychological Association that allows graduate students and early career researchers to foster innovative projects that might help solve pressing social problems.       

Receiving this grant, especially while still a graduate student, is “an enormous honor,” she said. With the funding, “I have been able to increase the scope of my research to include both diet and exercise, with the hope of generating insights that will have even greater impact for psychological science and public health applications.”

In 2017, Gardiner published a study that found that people who were rewarded $1 for every serving of fruits and vegetables they consumed not only ate more produce but also showed more motivation to eat fruits and vegetables over time. As people increased their consumption, regardless of which intervention they were in, they demonstrated increases in their “self-efficacy and attitudes about fruits and vegetables,” Gardiner said. That study was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Through the Visionary Grant, she hopes to extend this model to exercise habits.

Gardiner’s new study, which will begin in early 2018, aims to establish how monetary incentive interventions affect diet, exercise and psychological variables, and whether immediate incentives work better than delayed incentives to help people increase their physical activity.

CU Boulder already has a monetary incentive program for physical activity for members of its faculty and staff. Under that program, called “Be Colorado Move,” employees can receive $25 per month by recording at least 30 minutes of activity at least 12 days per month.

All humans prefer immediate rewards to delayed ones, but we each vary in the degree to which we are willing to wait for delayed rewards."

 “Be Colorado Move,” though, has a delayed incentive. Participating faculty and staff who exercise 12 times a month get $75 added onto their paychecks once every three months.

By contrast, Gardiner offers daily rewards to her participants via direct deposits through PayPal for $1 per 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise for up to $5 per day.

“All humans prefer immediate rewards to delayed ones, but we each vary in the degree to which we are willing to wait for delayed rewards. On average, people who exhibit certain kinds of unhealthy behaviors tend to be less likely to wait for delayed rewards,” Gardiner said.

“To help those people be as successful as possible when they’re trying to adopt healthier behaviors, we can structure our interventions to include more frequent, immediate rewards, which is why we are testing daily incentives in our study.”

For three weeks, participants will track their daily exercise habits and receive payments for their recorded times. At the conclusion of those three weeks, they will perform a set of measures that assess their behavior and psychological factors.

Two weeks after the study ends, the participants will be contacted once more and asked to complete a final assessment detailing their daily exercise habits that cover the time they were not receiving monetary incentives for being active.

Through a heightened self-efficacy and a stronger attitude towards exercising because of the monetary incentives, Gardiner hopes the participants will realize they are capable of exercising of their own volition.

“The more you do it, the more you like it,” said Gardiner, who believes that an active and healthy lifestyle is within reach for everybody. “Take those first steps.”