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The economic case for joining an expensive gym

Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Worth the cost.
By Allison Schrager
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Even my best moments at the gym aren’t nearly as enjoyable as sitting on my sofa and eating ice cream. And yet I go to the gym almost every day. A big part of how I get myself off the couch is that I belong to an absurdly expensive gym. The price is so high that I feel guilty if I don’t show up—and even ice cream can’t assuage that kind of guilt.

I’ve belonged to over-priced gyms since graduate school. Back then, my gym membership was 8% of my pre-tax income. That meant I never missed a workout. When my fellow graduate students balked at the expense, I’d tell them it made more sense to spend 8% of my income on something I used, rather than spend just $50 per semester for the university gym and never go. They rolled their eyes and said, “This is why everyone hates economists.”

That may be. But the point is that going for bargain-basement prices isn’t always the best option. Sometimes it makes sense to pay so much that it hurts.

Many people join gyms because we know that exercise is good for us, but only a small number of people actually manage to show up regularly. When you consider the number of times you actually wind up on the elliptical, it would be much cheaper for most of us to pay per use rather than fork over $80 or $100 a month.

So why do so many people sign up for memberships? A study by economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendie suggests that people join gyms because they over-estimate how often they will go. It’s one thing to say you’ll go to the gym tomorrow and every day after that. But it’s quite another matter when you’re exhausted after a long day of work and just want to curl up with some Netflix.

Behavioral economics can help us discover tactics to get over the hurdle and lace up our sneakers. Making a commitment to someone else—say, by having a personal trainer or work-out buddy—is one way to keep yourself on task. Another incentive can be handing over some cash. DellaVigna and Malmendie observed that attendance was slightly higher at the more expensive gym they studied and slightly lower at the cheaper one. But members of the expensive gym who paid cheaper rates via employer-subsidized memberships went almost as often as people who paid the full amount. So it is unclear how much prices matter as opposed to the quality of the gym.

Another study by economists Heather Royer, Mark Stehr, and Justin Sydnor looked at 1,000 employees at a Fortune 500 company who were encouraged to use a gym. For one month, they were paid $10 for each visit. After that, employees could put up money (an average amount of $58) which they’d get back if they continued to use the gym regularly for two months. If they didn’t go, the money would be given to charity.

About 12% of the employees put up money, and about 30% of those people went to the gym regularly. Among people who didn’t make the financial commitment, only 20% worked out at the gym. Unfortunately, there were too few people in the study to say whether the size of the financial commitment made a difference.

That said, there is evidence to suggest that putting more money on the line can help us follow through on our goals. In one research experiment, subjects were given between $50 and $500 and could allocate the money between two types of savings accounts: one where they withdraw money whenever they wanted, and another account that imposed a 10% penalty if money was taken out before a year was up. Respondents voluntarily put about 39% of the money in the account with the penalty, even though the two accounts offered the same interest rates. And as the penalty increased, they put more money in the restricted account. When the penalty was 20%, they put 45% of the money in. And when they were forbidden entirely from taking money out early, people put 56% of their savings in the restricted account.

Like those savers, I find that a bigger penalty gives me some added discipline. So if you’re looking to coax yourself onto the treadmill, consider setting up a penalty system like that of the Fortune 500 company, where a friend or family member will automatically give your hard-earned cash away if you don’t make it to the gym. Or, if you’re like me, bite the bullet and join the most expensive gym you can afford.

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