Incentives can be key to changing bad habits, say experts at the American Diabetes Association conference

Anyone who has ever professed a New Year’s resolution knows change is not easy.  When we hear our doctors’ recommendations to exercise more or eat healthier, we nod and know it is for the best, so why is it so difficult to change our habits? Good incentives are the key, according to research presented at Saturday’s American Diabetes Association conference in Philadelphia.  

“As humans, we tend to be wired toward immediate gratification… It’s hard to say no to something that is right in front of you,” says Kevin Volpp, a professor of Medicine and Health Care Management at the University of Pennsylvania.  This inclination can contribute to such unhealthy behavior as overspending and overeating. 

On the upside, proper incentives such as financial reward or peer encouragement do work if they help satisfy the need for quick gratification.  In fact, most large employers are using incentives to improve the health of their employees in order to reduce health coverage costs, Volpp said.  A 2009 study by Volpp and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine saw a greater number of smokers at General Electric quitting and for longer than a control group, when offered incentives totaling $700; the corporation subsequently implemented this into a nationwide program.

Even more effective than money? The encouragement of an empathetic peer.  The Annals of Internal Medicine reported earlier this year that, for a group of African American veterans with diabetes, mentoring by a fellow diabetic who had successfully managed the disease improved the group’s glucose levels by a greater amount than another group that was given just monetary incentives.The effort may have been successful because of a "culture of comaraderie" among the veterans. Mentors were also paid $20 to talk at least four times a month by phone to their mentees.

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