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Optimum Performance: How economics impact decision to exercise

January is the time of year when many people make a “contribution” to begin an exercise program to lose weight, get into better shape, or just feel better. Last January, quoted Patrick Strait, a spokesperson for Snap Fitness — a global chain of 24-hour fitness centers — to say that in January 2013, “We added 100,000 new memberships.”
To put that into perspective, Strait added, “That’s roughly 15 percent of all the new memberships that we add for the year.”

Making a “commitment” to continue to exercise past January has become one of the biggest challenges that many people will face.

Last Sunday, Josh Barro, a New York Times domestic correspondent, noted in his Upshot column that, “Our overoptimism about how much we will work out has been the subject of academic research.”
Barro references a prior research paper — Paying Not To Go To The Gym — by two economists, which found, “That members at three Boston gyms went (to the gym) an average of 4.3 times a month.”

However, notes Barro, “With monthly membership fees of just $70 that meant an average of $17 per visit — well above the $10 charge to work out as a non-member.”

A survey of the gym members said on average that they would hit the gym 9.5 times per month, which was more than twice what they actually did. “People remained in denial about their gym attendance even after they’d stopped going entirely,” the researchers concluded.

One would assume that health clubs are aware of this member apathy, which is why they can oversell memberships – never fearing that ever member would show up on the same day and time.

So how can you motivate people to stay with their exercise routine past one month? Many NFL teams pay their players to attend optional off-season workouts. A player historically would need to attend 4 out of 5 supervised training sessions per week to pick up his check.

Barro referenced an economist from the University of California, who came up with an interesting experiment. Joining with a Fortune 500 company, the economist and her team set up two interventions: One to get people to start going to the gym, and another to keep them there.

“For four weeks,” stated Barro, “The company paid its employees to work out, $10 per visit up to three times per week. After those four weeks, there were no payments, but some workers were offered a commitment contract: They could set aside their own money that would be released to them only if they worked out over the next two months, otherwise, it would be given to charity.”

The researchers discovered at the conclusion of the experiment that, “Even though those commitment contracts ended three months after the start of the study, the effects on workout frequency persisted for years.”

Three years after the study, the researchers found that, “The workers who had been offered the contracts remained 20 percent more likely to work out than those who had not been offered any incentives.”

Here are my suggestions on how to stay motivated with your exercise program:

Enjoy what you are doing: People can lose focus when they don’t enjoy their chosen activity.

Seeing is believing: Visualize how much better you will look with a “fitter” body.

Prepare for the challenge: Write down the goals for your exercise program in the form of a “commitment ” contract with yourself. And, read it periodically.

Diversify: Periodically change your exercise routine to overcome boredom. Remember, you’re in it for the long haul.

Here’s what I have said to my athletes and interns about what it takes to succeed: “The world around us and the careers we have chosen may change, but if we can keep alive our focus, our ability to adapt, our health, our passion, our enjoyment of what we do, and our commitment, we can sustain our motivation for a lifetime.”

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. Contact him at