Study: Monetary Incentive Not Effective At Getting People To The Gym

October 11, 2017

As a result of new services like online fitness classes and class-based fitness memberships like ClassPass, enticing people to traditional gyms is getting harder. As reported earlier this year, spending for on-demand fitness now exceeds spending at yoga and Pilates studios.  Traditional gyms still comprise the vast majority of the market but have lost 5% of the market to 73% in 2016. Consequently, employee wellness programs are also struggling to get people active through the traditional route: sign up for the gym and stick with it.


Monetary Incentives And Behavioral Changes

A group of researchers at Case Western Reserve University looked to find the golden rules when it comes to enticing gym-goers and found that monetary incentives were not the answer. In their study, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, participants were offered Amazon gift cards or prize such as a blender. Specifically, all participants got a $30 Amazon gift card and an additional $60 Amazon gift card (or a prize) if they visited the gym nine times during the first six weeks they’d joined.

While nearly 95% of participants reported that they planned to visit the gym three times a week at the beginning of the study, only one-third managed to keep that commitment. Another 14% of participants did not even make it to the gym at all after the first week. Overall, participants who were given incentives made just 0.14 more visits to the gym per week than those who did not receive incentives, making monetary incentive a poor motivation to get people committed to the gym.


Not Carrot OR Stick, But Both

A study back in 2015 looked at a slightly different model to promote gym attendance: contract with self. Heather Royer, a Professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made a proposal with employees participating in a wellness program. The researchers would hold on to participant’s money if they committed to going to the gym once every two weeks for the next two months.  If the employee met that goal, they would get their money back; if they didn’t, the money would be given away to a charity. 

Not everyone participated, but of those who did (women and overweight people were the groups most likely to opt in), they went 25% more often than those who didn’t.  This contract option combined rewards AND penalties into a single program. The graph below shows the gym attendance rates for all three cohorts. 



If Not Gym Reimbursement, Then What?

The study suggests that gym reimbursements might be going to waste since people are not taking advantage of the benefit by actually going to the gym. As an alternative to traditional gym reimbursement programs, Wellable suggests employers build programs that tie the reimbursement to the tracking of the physical activity, and individuals can choose what activity best suits them. By verifying these activities have occurred, program sponsors can not only meet individuals where they are but can also link the reimbursement to verified activities.  This helps solve the problem of paying for gym memberships that are never utilized.

Topics: Corporate Wellness

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