Research shows fitness incentives don’t pay off.
You can’t even pay people to go to the gym.
A new study suggests that offering incentives to work out more isn’t effective in the long run.
Only 1 in 5 Americans (21%) get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise (like brisk walking), or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running) per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And unfortunately, having skin in the game by paying for a gym membership often doesn’t make fitness resolutions stick. An astonishing 67% of people with gym memberships never use them, even though they’re dropping $58 a month on them.
So researchers at Case Western Reserve University decided to see if offering rewards, perhaps, would help new gym members commit to getting fit. Almost 95% of the newbies planned to visit the fitness center more than once a week. And the researchers tried to helping one group follow through by offering rewards for visiting the gym nine times over six weeks, or an average of 1.5 times a week: A $30 Amazon gift card; a prize, like a blender, of equal value; or a $60 gift card. The control group was given a $30 Amazon certificate no matter how often they hit the gym.
And after the first week, 14% of all participants did not visit the gym again. Three months later, only a third worked out at the gym more than once a week. And overall, those given the extra incentives only made 0.14 more visits per week than those who weren’t offered a reward at all. And the group given the $60 gift card did not visit the gym any more than those given the $30 gift card or their choice of a prize.
“They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behavior did not match their intent, even with a reward,” said co-author Mariana Carrera, an assistant professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management, in a statement. “Maybe the internal motivation that gets a person to start a gym membership is unrelated to what drives them to earn financial incentives.”
So what can keep you from falling off the fitness cliff?
Make it a mindless habit. Repetitive behavior reinforces exercise, according to a Health Psychology study, which found that the most consistent exercisers got into the habit of sweating after certain triggers without even thinking about it – for example, going for a run as soon as they felt stressed, or going to the gym right after their alarms went off in the morning. That way, they didn’t have time to waffle over whether they could go or not; they just did it.
Keep your gym close. If it takes too long to get there, it’s just another excuse not to go. People who go to the gym five or more times a month travel just 3.7 miles on average, according to a marketing report earlier this year, compared to those traveling 5.1 miles, who only hit the gym once a month. Pick a gym that’s either just a few minutes from your house, or from your job, to make it easier to fit into your schedule.
Workout with friends. Having a gym buddy keeps you motivated and accountable. An Indiana University survey found that couples who worked out separately had a 43% dropout rate over a year, versus couples who sweat together, who only had a 6.3% dropout rate. Just make sure your fitness pal likes similar workouts and goals, so you’re sweating on the same level.
Have fun. It doesn’t matter if everyone you know loves training for marathons; if you hate running, you’re not going to stick with it. But you will be more likely to commit to a class or routine that you truly enjoy. In fact, research shows that people who work out just to achieve a goal, like losing weight, enjoy the exercise less and suffer more stress than people who do something because they enjoy the physical activity itself.
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