​Can this Apple Watch deal make you fitter?

Research links Apple Watch reward scheme -- and a combination of carrot and stick -- to an increase in exercise.

A rewards scheme that offers a heavily subsidised Apple Watch to encourage exercise is persuading people to get off the couch and get active.

Health insurance company Vitality said its research -- which it described as the largest behaviour tech study based on verified data -- has shown that its incentive scheme, when combined with Apple's smartwatch, can deliver sustained improvements in physical activity levels.

Under the insurer's deal, members in the UK pay an upfront fee of £99, with the rest of the cost of the watch spread over 24 monthly payments of £12.50. But by hitting some goals for physical activity members can cut the cost of the monthly payments, with its most energetic users able to pay nothing at all.

The report found an average 34 percent increase in activity levels for those using Vitality's reward scheme with the Apple Watch, compared to those only using the company's other incentives, which in the UK offer a free coffee or cinema ticket for hitting certain activity goals.

The basic idea is that prevention is always better than cure. Offering people a good deal on a smartwatch that then encourages them to exercise can reduce their need for medical treatment in the long term, meaning there's a saving for the company and better health for the individual. "We monetise people making good decisions," said Vitality founder Adrian Gore.

The research found an increase in activity -- 4.8 extra days of activity per month -- which Vitality estimated translates into two extra years of life. The study examined the behaviours of over 400,000 people in the UK, US and South Africa, around 90,000 of which have taken up the Apple Watch offer. While 'at-risk' participants with a high Body Mass Index were less likely to take up the benefit, they showed greater improvements in activity than other groups

It looks like it's the reward structure that may be the winner here, as much as the Apple hardware, a combination of a 'gain-framed incentive' -- like a free coffee for hitting an exercise goal, and a 'loss-framed incentive' -- like making you pay for the Apple Watch if you don't hit your exercise goal. "The two components reinforce each other and create an ecosystem of behaviour change," the report said.

More and more of us are using wearable devices, whether that's to track our steps or measure restful sleep, and, according to research body YouGov, nearly one in five of us own a wearable, and one in 10 actively use them. But it's still unlikely that the NHS will be giving them out any time soon, as it's not totally clear that using wearables and trackers will improve the users' health.

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

At the moment most people using health trackers tend to be younger and healthier. The people the health service is more worried about are the older and less healthy who could benefit more from exercise.

In many respects the more interesting data in the report is not about the Apple Watch itself but about the combination of carrot and stick that can encourage people to be more active, which could potentially help health organisations to create schemes that get more people active.

"What we can say is that the way that the incentive was constructed, which did involve a very specific piece of branded technology [in a loss-framed incentive], was associated with increased physical activity," said Hans Pung, president of RAND Europe, which carried out the research.

Whether it's possible to design a scheme for the general population that rewards them for getting active, but also penalises them in some way if they don't, may be a challenge for healthcare professionals and politicians.

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