People will lead healthy lives if they are offered cash incentives

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PEOPLE are more likely to change their lifestyle and adopt healthy behaviour when offered a financial incentive to do so, according to new research.

Experts have carried out a study involving 30,000 people, who were set challenges such as quitting smoking, and offered incentives to help them.

A team of academics looked at 16 previous studies and found that as little as £3 could make people up to 50 per cent more likely to change their behaviour, when compared with no intervention. Financial penalties for not succeeding in the task were also found to work but researchers concluded that larger incentives were no more likely to be effective than smaller.

Using incentives to change behaviour is already being used in South Yorkshire where a project has been launched to give £200 vouchers to new mothers who breastfeed.

The latest study was carried out by Newcastle University.

Research associate, Dr Emma Giles, said: “This was an interesting finding and we were surprised at just how strong the effect was.

“People who took part in these reward or penalty schemes were much more likely to adopt healthy behaviours, and if they continued they would have more chance of remaining healthy for longer.

“Many studies used vouchers for supermarkets or similar things rather than actual cash. This might be a more acceptable way of implementing this.”

The team said they were not clear if the effects would continue after the rewards had stopped and said more work needed to be done to calculate whether the policy would actually save the NHS money in the long run.

Dr Jean Adams, a senior lecturer in public health, said: “We were surprised how few studies we found which had looked at the impact financial incentives can have.

“At this stage we don’t know the right level that incentives should be at, so it is not clear if this sort of scheme would save the NHS and country money.

“We try all kinds of techniques to try to help people to quit smoking or otherwise live healthy lives, so why not try this? It is about nudging people to healthier behaviours. There is a chance this could save the taxpayer money in the long run.”

Last year the Yorkshire Post reported that new mothers are to be paid to breastfeed their babies to find out if uptake rates increase with the financial incentive in place.

Vouchers for retail chains Matalan, John Lewis or Mothercare – as well as supermarkets – will be given to 130 new mothers in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire if they feed their babies with breast milk.

In the study led by experts from Sheffield University, mothers will be given vouchers worth up to £120 if their babies receive breast milk until they are six weeks old, and a further £80 if they continue until the babies are six months.

Mothers and their health visitor or midwife will be asked to sign off to say they are breastfeeding.

When the scheme was announced Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The motive for breastfeeding cannot be rooted by offering financial reward. It has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and well-being of her child.”