WEDNESDAY, May 8, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- When a health insurer told obese people they could either pay 20 percent more for coverage or start exercising, most of them decided to get active, according to a new study.
More than 6,500 obese people insured by Blue Care Network enrolled in a pedometer-based program to obtain insurance discounts, and the majority met their fitness goals, researchers found.
"Wellness interventions like this clearly hold significant promise for encouraging physical activity among adults who are obese," said senior author Dr. Caroline Richardson, an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Health System and Stanford University.
After one year, nearly 97 percent of participants in the walking program had met or exceeded the average goal of 5,000 steps a day. This included people who disagreed with the financial incentives and said the program was "coercive."
For some families, the out-of-pocket cost of failing to meet the insurer's fitness requirements was nearly $2,000 more a year. People with medical conditions were exempt if they had a waiver from a doctor, according to the study, which was published May 8 in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine.
Obesity is linked to serious health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which contribute to high medical and insurance costs in the United States.
Richardson said insurers are likely to offer more of these incentive programs in the future.
"There are ethical debates around the idea of forcing someone to be personally responsible for health care costs related to not exercising, but we expect to see more of these approaches to financially motivate healthier behaviors," Richardson said in a university news release.
"Our evaluation of Blue Care's incentivized program showed a surprisingly high rate of people who enrolled in the Internet-mediated walking program and stuck with it -- even among those who were initially hostile to the idea," Richardson said.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to physical activity.