A new study finds that financial incentives are not enough to motivate people to exercise, even when those people really want to develop good habits. The findings were reported in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that just 1 in 5 American adults meets recommended physical activity levels. Many of us want to do better. That’s why we buy elliptical machines, sign up for yoga classes, and join the gym. Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, these investments go to waste.
Previous studies of exercise motivation have found that financial incentives have had mixed results. But these studies focused on the general population, so it’s possible that many of the participants didn’t actually care about upping their exercise in the first place.
To find out if paying people to hit the gym pays off, researchers recruited 836 new gym members: that is, people who already had a financial stake in working out more frequently. The experts divided the participants into four groups. The first group, the control group, was paid $30 no matter what they did. The other groups were told that they’d be rewarded for attending the gym just 1.5 times per week during their first six weeks of membership. The rewards were either a $30 or $60 Amazon gift card or a $30 item of the participant’s choosing.
The researchers tracked how many times each participant swiped in at the gym. To ensure that people weren’t just showing up, swiping in, then leaving, they enacted a 10-minute minimum halfway through the study. The new policy didn’t make much difference; people still showed up with the same frequency.
Or, more accurately, they didn’t show up.
Before the study began, participants said they planned to visit the gym an average of three times each week. Reality looked a bit different. People in the control group started out fine, going 1.5 times per week, but by the end of the study they were down to once a week. The folks in the incentive groups didn’t fare much better. They averaged 1.73 weekly visits during their second week, but tapered to a single weekly workout by the end of the study period. After the six weeks ended, all four groups’ attendance declined even further.
Co-author Mariana Carrera is an economist at Case Western University’s Weatherhead School of Management. She says adding money to the participants’ initial enthusiasm was still not enough.
"They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behavior did not match their intent, even with a reward," she said in a statement. "People thought earning the incentive would be easy but were way overoptimistic about how often they'd go."
Let’s not lose faith just yet. Gift cards may not be the key to a fitter life, but there are other ways we can motivate ourselves.
First, pause and reflect, and try to figure out what’s holding you back. Are you tired? Is your gym too far from your workplace? Do you just kind of hate your yoga instructor? The obstacles may be easily overcome once you know what they are.
Second, get someone else, a friend or a coworker, to hold you accountable to your exercise plan. Shame is a powerful deterrent.
Finally, try lowering your standards. Five minutes of exercise is better than zero; start there. And many of us are far more active than we realize. Carrying groceries, chasing your kids, and walking to the coffee shop may not require cute leggings or bright sneakers, but they're still exercise.