COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Professional athletes aren't the only ones who enjoy getting paid for athletic performance -- new research suggests kids like it, too.

In a study of children participating in an after-school exercise program, scientists here found that children promised a small payment for achieving maximum heart rate ultimately reached a higher heart rate than those kids just given encouragement.

"On one particular element of the program -- riding the exercise bike -- we didn't believe that the kids were giving us their best effort," said Barbara A. Smith, associate professor of community, parent-child and psychiatric nursing at Ohio State University and author of the study. "We tried everything -- yelling, screaming, coaching, cheerleading. It didn't seem to work. After we started the 'incentive' plan, all of a sudden we started noticing much higher heart rates."

Smith presented her findings recently at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting in Minneapolis.

For her study, Smith assigned 52 children age 7 to 12 to two groups. The first group had 30 children; the second, 22. She told the children in the first group to ride the exercise bike until they were exhausted, offering them only words of encouragement as incentive. In contrast, she told children in the second group that they would earn $1 for pedaling hard enough to achieve a heart rate of 180 beats per minute, $2 for a rate of 200 and $5 for a rate of 210.

Children given only verbal encouragement quit at an average heart rate of 186 beats per minute; in contrast, children given a financial incentive quit at a rate 6 percent higher -- 198 beats per minute.

"It surprised me a little bit that money was that much of a motivator," Smith said.

Smith said these findings, while interesting, don't mean that parents should start paying their children to exercise.

"To get into paying a child to exercise on a regular basis would not be wise," she said. "You want exercise to be the incentive itself. Plus, if you pay a child to exercise, it could just become another chore. It would only work for so long."

However, she said, these findings do suggest that rewards, if given judiciously, can support and even improve a child's exercise habits.

"We should do what we can to encourage children to exercise," Smith said. "Exercise in childhood has a long-term effect, both physiologically and in terms of establishing healthy behavior. If you give children some exercise goals to work toward and then reward them for attaining those goals, that's fine."

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Contact: Barbara A. Smith, (614) 292-4899

Written by Kelly McConaghy Kershner, (614) 292-8308