Anyone who strives to be successful one day also knows how important it is to stay healthy. While eating right is crucial, exercising may be the harder healthy habit to stick to.
So how does someone stick to their commitment of going to the gym a few times a week? Some researchers may have found the best way through economics.
Heather Royer, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led a study that took a monetary incentive approach to going to the gym and discovered that one incentive program in particular still had participants going to the gym two to three years after the initial month long study.
The basic premise of the study was to track the workout habits of nearly a thousand employees at a large Midwestern company who had access to the company gym. Researchers enticed randomly selected employees to exercise for $10 each session up to three times a week for one month.
Gym attendance doubled, but after the test month ended and the monetary rewards stopped, people stopped going to the gym. It was established that cash is a strong incentive, but the motivation ends as soon as the cash flow stops.
The second part of the study revisited some of the same employees with a new, long-term commitment contract. This time, researchers would hold on to the employees’ money. Employees who agreed to the contract had to commit to going to the gym at least once every two weeks over a period of two months. If employees met their goal, they’d get their money back, but if they failed, the money would be donated to charity.
Only 12% of employees in the study, mostly women and overweight people, agreed to the proposal, but the contracted employees ended up going to the gym 25% more than the employees who opted out.
The graph below shows the three groups of the study: the “Control” line represents employees who were not offered anything, the “Incentive” line represents employees who were offered the $10 per workout session, and the “Incentive + commit” line represents employees who agreed to the commitment contract after the incentive month.
The results surprised researchers — employees who participated in the month-long incentive program and then signed up for the two-month commitment contract were still going to the gym two to three years after the study at a rate that was 20% higher than the employees who didn’t participate in the program. Researchers noted in the study that the contract program, “appears to have generated a real change in exercise behavior for the majority of our subjects, particularly among … those who exercise the least.”
Before the study, the economists knew that people tend to be bad at prioritizing long-term benefits, which explains why more people who pay high monthly gym fees go less often and forgo more money than people who pay cheaper long-term memberships.
In the end, the best way to start going (and keep yourself going) to the gym is to reward yourself in the beginning, but the hard part comes when you solidify that habit by putting even more of your own money on the line to encourage you to get it back in a couple months.
Does that sound crazy? Maybe, but it’s probably not as crazy as trusting yourself to go to the gym when you say you will.