A new pilot program is testing whether or not incentives can motivate Canadians to exercise more often.

Darlene Frampton is senior vice president of brand strategy for YMCA Canada. She says 20 per cent of new YMCA members stop coming after the first three to six months. 

"We knew they needed increased motivation and we weren’t sure if this sort of thing would provide that motivation," Frampton said. 

That motivation comes courtesy of a unique, multi-sector partnership between YMCA Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Air Miles for Social Change — a social venture that’s part of the Air Miles Program. 


In the pilot program that included 15 YMCA locations across the country, 46,000 members received 25 miles for signing up and then could earn one mile for every two visits to the gym. 

"Sixty-three per cent of active YMCA members who engaged in this incentives programs did visit one to six times more per week over the same time as last year," Frampton said. 

Of those increased visits, 18 per cent were children accompanying their parents, a statistic Frampton finds encouraging as her organization works to keep kids active. But she also said having more active and engaged members offers a larger pool of people who are more likely to become volunteers and donors to the YMCA's charitable causes. 

Angela Simo Brown

Angela Simo Brown is general manager of Air Miles for Social Change. (Courtesy Loyalty One)

Angela Simo Brown is general manager and co-founder of Air Miles for Social Change. She said their research shows that Air Miles can change consumer buying habits by offering rewards, and this project is a natural extension looking to influence behaviour. 

“Canadians want to make healthier choices, they just need the right incentive,” she said.

When data showed most YMCA members were averaging one to two visits a week, they tested different incentive packages to see which ones would best motivate members to make one more visit as a habit.

"Hopefully they sustain that behaviour,” Simo Brown said. 

Simo Brown said the miles are provided to YMCA members through a matching program between Air Miles for Social Change and the Public Health Agency of Canada, redirecting money the agency would have spent on advertising.

The pilot program wraps up in April, but all parties are keen to see it continue. Frampton was frank about the positive optics it provides for the YMCA and Air Miles as organizations, while Brown said it also helps the Public Health Agency of Canada meet part of its mandate to promote health.

Researchers in the U.S. and U.K. are also looking at ways to motivate people to be more physically active.