Why a Gym Membership Is Usually a Bad Investment

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

This false optimism happens because of what economists call “hyperbolic discounting,” or the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller reward now over a larger reward later. This is why people so frequently tell themselves the right day to exercise is tomorrow. Decision fatigue also plays a role, as making the choice to exercise depletes a certain amount of willpower. The choice is especially difficult, and especially exhausting, for those who are not already in the routine of working out or attending a gym consistently.

The motivation problem aside, people still like the idea of being locked into a contract with a gym. “Joining a gym is an interesting form of what behavioral economists call pre-commitment,” Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Wharton School, told NPR. “They’re picturing the ‘new me’ who’s actually going to go to the gym three times a week and become a physical fitness machine.” In other words, when we sign up for gym memberships, we think the money will motivate us to go. But it doesn’t.

This could be why alternatives are cropping up like the app Pact, which focuses on more direct monetary rewards for keeping your fitness goals (and deductions if you don’t). A 2009 study out of the University of California-Santa Barbara found people were more likely to work out if they were rewarded with cash, so money can play a motivating role in terms of fitness. It’s just the gym model doesn’t seem to be the one that works for most people (except the gym owners).

There are some people who take full advantage of their gym memberships, of course. Actually it’s not just the under-utilizers that keep health clubs profitable but also the super-utilizers. These are the gym rats who pay for a lot of extra services like personal training sessions, supplements, snacks, and drinks. It’s the uncommon regular gym-goers who don’t spend any extra cash who are getting the best deal. If you know the gym membership model works for you, there are other ways to save money, such as signing up during off-season specials. Swimmers and other people with specific facility needs will likely get more for their money as well.

For everyone else, there are plenty of great gym exercises to practice at home, and other alternatives like going jogging around the neighborhood, free workout videos on the web, and donation-based programs like Yoga to the People. The important thing is that you exercise. And if your long-standing gym membership isn’t getting the job done, it’s time to take your money and run.

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