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Association between time preference, present-bias and physical activity: implications for designing behavior change interventions

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Susan Chilton



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2018 The Author(s). Background: The decision to initiate or maintain a healthy habit, such as physical activity involves a trade-off between a short-term cost, such as time and effort, which are commonly identified as barriers to physical activity, and a long-term health benefit. Research suggests that individual time preference may be associated with unhealthy behaviors. However, empirical evidence of this for physical activity is scant. This study investigated the relationship between time preference and physical activity, and how this might influence behavior change. Methods: Employees (n = 176; mean age 42.2 years) who participated in a physical activity intervention were invited to take part in a behavioral economic field experiment. Two economic experiments, using multiple price lists and monetary trade-off tables involving real money choices, were conducted face-to-face with participants to measure the two components of time preference, namely present-bias and discount rate. Together with individual risk preferences, these three variables were jointly estimated by maximum likelihood. These three parameters were expressed as a linear function of the levels of physical activity while controlling for socio-demographic variables within the same maximum likelihood framework. Results: Those who were present-biased and who had higher discount rates did significantly less physical activity than their patient and non present-biased counterparts. A 3% lower discount rate and 1.14 unit decrement in the present-bias parameter was associated with a 30 min increase of physical activity per week. This negative association was more significant for certain sub-groups, such as younger and married adults and those with higher staff grade and those who have children. Participants who dropped out of the study earlier were more present-biased. Conclusions: Results demonstrated that discount rate and present-biasedness have a significant impact on physical activity levels. Such concepts have been largely overlooked and underutilized in physical activity interventions. Promising implications include 1) utilizing individuals' time preferences to better target interventions; 2) taking account of time preferences in the intervention design; 3) interventions attempting to correct for present-biasedness.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hunter RF, Tang J, Hutchinson G, Chilton S, Holmes D, Kee F

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: BMC Public Health

Year: 2018

Volume: 18

Issue: 1

Online publication date: 19/12/2018

Acceptance date: 05/12/2018

Date deposited: 04/01/2019

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2458

Publisher: BioMed Central Ltd.


DOI: 10.1186/s12889-018-6305-9

PubMed id: 30567532


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