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

Ruth Hunter, Jianjun Tang, W George Hutchinson, Susan Chilton, David Holmes, Frank Kee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
297 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number18: 1388
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1388
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2018


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