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Could paying people to exercise drive down obesity levels?

By Tom Walker    05 Mar 2021
The government is considering a 'cash for exercise' scheme to tackle obesity / Shutterstock/Motortion Films

The UK government is exploring whether incentivising people financially to take part

in physical activity could help drive down obesity levels.

Sir Keith Mills, who founded the Air Miles and Nectar customer loyalty programmes, is advising the government on the feasibility of introducing a "cash for exercise" scheme, which would reward people for getting active.

Part of his work will include looking at public health schemes from around the world, which have been successful in getting people fit and eating better.

These include a "step challenge" in Singapore, a nationwide physical activity programme aimed at encouraging people to do more physical activity with financial incentives.

Sir Keith is likely to also study commercial operators who incentivise exercise – such as apps which offer financial returns or "cash backs" for workouts, s examples being HealthyWage and DietBet – and schemes such as Sweatcoin, which verifies the number of steps a user takes each day and converts the number into a cryptocurrency.

Programmes which reward exercise and physical activity have also been adopted by a number of insurance companies, often in the form of discounts on insurance premiums or fitness-related technology.

One of these is Vitality, which offers a wide range of rewards to customers who exercise – from connected Garmin wearable devices and Apple Watches to discounts redeemable from partner companies.

The news of Sir Keith's work comes as the UK government announced a £100m package to help drive down levels of obesity.

It said that more than £70m will be invested in weight management services – made available through the NHS and councils – enabling up to 700,000 adults to have access to support that can help them to lose weight.

The remaining £30m will fund initiatives to help people maintain a healthy weight, including the Better Health campaign, behavioural weight management services and upskilling health workers in "early years services".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has lost weight himself after becoming unwell with COVID-19, said: "Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference.

"Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with COVID.

"If we all do our bit, we can reduce our own health risks - but also help take pressure off the NHS.

"This funding will give extra support to people across the country who want to lose weight too."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock added: "The urgency of tackling obesity has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from COVID-19, so it's vital we take action on obesity to protect the NHS and improve our nation's health."

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: "Living with obesity can have a devastating impact on people's health and wellbeing in so many ways, not least its link this year to the increased risk from COVID-19.

"This investment will greatly boost services for adults struggling with their weight and raising the profile of our Better Health campaign will help to support more people to make healthier choices."

The initiative comes as a study by the University of Cambridge found that the failure to tackle the UK's obesity crisis is down to successive governments being guilty of weak policy design, lack of effectiveness and botched implementation.

The study suggested that the approaches taken by governments to their own policies has "destined them to fail", as there has been a reliance on attempting to influence individuals to change their behaviours – rather than changing unhealthy environments.

Keith Mills  obesity  physical activity  exercise 
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