Here's Why Gyms Don't Want You to Work Out

Convershaken Staff
January 4, 2016

Many people see the start of a new year as a natural dividing point between their past failings and their future, better selves; an opportunity for reinvention and to leave bad habits behind. But a large proportion of those who try to eat healthier, exercise more or quit smoking revert to their old ways within weeks.

In the case of exercise, that may be partly due to how gyms are run; a classic episode of NPR's Planet Money podcast delves into how they rely on no-shows to make money. Unlike most businesses that aim to provide a service to customers, gyms and fitness centres actively seek to sign up people who never come, allowing them to charge lower prices. Indeed, one gym staffer says her facility has 6,000 members, but could only hold 300 at a stretch.

Many gyms require new members to sign annual contracts; that ensures a steady stream of income, and members don't mind being locked in as they picture themselves attending regularly and feeling pressured to visit more often. The simple act of signing up can also be immensely gratifying, as people feel they're being proactive about their health long before they break a sweat.

However, people eventually wake up to the fact that they're wasting money on an unused membership: many gyms lose more than half of their members each year. That has prompted them to offer other services to ensure members feel they're getting value for their money, such as free bagels or pizza, massage chairs, aqua beds, smoothie bars and cushy lounges for relaxing and socialising.

Although such services appear to run counter to people's goals of exercising and eating healthily, they may help draw people to the gym and encourage them to work out. A past Freakonomics podcast centres on the research of Wharton professor Katherine Milkman, who pioneered the idea of 'temptation bundling', or motivating people to do an unpleasant activity by combining it with something they enjoy. For instance, Milkman only allows herself to watch her favourite TV shows when she's in the gym.

Milkman tested her theory by conducting a study at a university gym, where she recruited students who were keen to exercise more and split them into three groups. Her research team provided iPods loaded with addictive e-books such as The Hunger Games to the first group of participants, but restricted them to listening while in the gym. The second group were given the iPods and encouraged to use them while working out, but were allowed to take them home - a test of their willpower and ability to motivate themselves. Finally, the control group received vouchers for a local bookstore.

She discovered that the first group, drawn to the gym by the exciting audiobooks, exercised the most in a seven-week period. The second group was less active, and the final group trailed the other two. However, once students returned from Thanksgiving break, the audiobooks' effect on gym attendance disappeared.

Milkman has also found evidence that people are more likely to try to improve themselves at the start of a new semester, new week, new month, after a birthday and at the start of a new year. She found a significant uplift in Google searches for terms such as 'diet' at those times, and found a similar trend in the gym attendance of university students. The perception of a 'fresh start' can be a poweful motivator.