"Paying Americans to go to the gym may not be enough to help them build a habit of regular exercise.
A new study, circulated Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper, described a recent experiment in which new gym members were given up to $60 based on attendance over a six-week period. They worked out a bit more than people who weren’t paid to exercise, but in the longer run both groups ended up going to the gym about once a week.
“We don’t find evidence that it persists after the incentive program ends,” said Case Western Reserve University economist Mariana Carrera, one of the paper’s four co-authors. The others were Heather Royer of the University of California at Santa Barbara; Mark Stehr of Drexel University; and Justin Sydnor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Finding ways to encourage healthy behavior, such as exercise and eating a nutritious diet, is a big challenge facing the U.S. health system. More than a third of U.S. adults are obese, driving health problems and deaths from heart disease and other causes. But as the new study suggests, it isn’t a simple matter to nudge Americans to adopt healthier habits like regular workouts.
“There’s no easy solution,” Ms. Carrera said.
According to the new working paper, 690 people who joined a private gym in an unidentified Midwestern city from September 2015 to April 2016 were divided into four groups. A control group received a $30 gift card after six weeks regardless of attendance. The others received gift cards of either $30 or $60, or a gift worth about $30, only if they went to the gym at least nine days in their first six weeks of membership.
The study noted new gym members were “extremely overoptimistic about how often they will visit the gym, and there is a fast decline in their visit frequency over the first few months of membership.” On average, they said they’d go about three times a week, but started off going twice a week and after a couple of months were exercising just once a week.
Differences between people who were and weren’t paid to work out were “quite modest,” the researchers wrote. The paid participants went, on average, 0.14 more times per week than the control group. That difference largely disappeared after the six-week program ended.
“We conclude that the provision of moderately sized financial incentives only moderately helped new gym members establish better habits for using the gym,” the economists wrote.
Other research on this subject has been mixed, the paper said, with some evidence that incentives encourage gym attendance but other studies finding modest and inconsistent gains."
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