Peo­ple were of­fered cash to go to the gym. Guess what hap­pened?

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Stephanie Kanowitz

Have you ever thought, “You couldn’t pay me enough to go to the gym”? You’re not alone.

When re­searchers of­fered new gym mem­bers $30, $60 or a gift worth about $30 for go­ing to the gym nine times in six weeks, at­ten­dance in­creased only slightly, ac­cord­ing to the “Can Fi­nan­cial In­cen­tives Help Peo­ple Try­ing to Es­tab­lish New Habits?” study by the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search.

Pub­lished in July, the eight­month study sep­a­rated 836 new mem­bers of a pri­vate gym in the Mid­west into a con­trol group and three in­cen­tive groups. On av­er­age, participants said they planned to ex­er­cise three times a week. What’s more, 43 per­cent said they had ex­er­cised on av­er­age one day or less per week in the prior year.

“The hope would have been that by tar­get­ing this, you could es­pe­cially cap­ture some of the peo­ple who early on fall off and get them to keep go­ing for longer,” said Justin Syd­nor, one of the re­port’s au­thors and a riskman­age­ment and in­sur­ance pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin at Madi­son. “These in­cen­tive pro­grams did in­crease slightly how of­ten peo­ple went, but only by about one visit, and then it re­ally has no last­ing im­pact.”

A big­ger sum wouldn’t have mat­tered, he said, be­cause dou­bling the prize from $30 to $60 “didn’t re­ally im­prove the tra­jec­tory at all, and so that makes us not have a lot of con­fi­dence that fur­ther in­creases would do a lot.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, many participants didn’t go as of­ten as they’d planned. In­stead of three times, they went twice in the first week and were down to once a week by the end of the sec­ond month.

“I think a lot of that op­ti­mism is rooted in the fact that peo­ple join gyms at a mo­ment of peak mo­ti­va­tion,” such as on New Year’s Day or salient birth­days, Syd­nor said.

More ef­fec­tive ap­proaches may be based on so­cial in­ter­ven­tion, such as meet­ing a friend or trainer at the gym, or get­ting re­minders to go.

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