In the experiment, participants got a modest prize if they visited the gym nine times in the six weeks. It was either a $30 Amazon gift card or equivalent for one group, a $60 card for another group and one control group got a $30 card regardless of if they rocked up or not.
The new gym goers intended to visit three times per week but ended up averaging one visit weekly by the end of the six-week study. Nearly 95% said they expected to visit the gym more than once per week, but by the end of the third month, only about a third had. After the first week, 14% didn’t visit the gym again.
Participants with incentives did show a slight increase in visits in their last week – probably because it was their last chance to earn their reward. But overall, those given incentives made only 0.14 more visits per week than those who were promised no reward at all. The group promised the $60 gift card also didn’t visit the gym more often than those given the $30 gift card or prize.
"They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behaviour did not match their intent, even with a reward," said Mariana Carrera, co-author of the study. "People thought earning the incentive would be easy but were way overoptimistic about how often they'd go."
Carrera says the motivations are complex when it comes to exercise. "Maybe the internal motivation that gets a person to start a gym membership is unrelated to what drives them to earn financial incentives. What's clear was there was no complementarity in lumping these two motivations together."
So if a gift card isn’t getting you out of bed, then what will? Strength and conditioning specialist Holly Perkins says you need to identify why you want to achieve your goal. “Wanting to look better is not going to get you off the couch and to the gym over the long haul,” says Perkins, author of Lift to Get Lean. You have to look beyond the mirror and ask yourself what you want – deep down. The answer – whether it’s boosting your self-confidence or being able to be there for your family or friends – is actually way more motivating, Perkins says.
That’s probably why the majority of people who sign up for the gym because they want to feel good are more likely to attend than those who do it mainly to look good. Don’t think you really have a more visceral drive? Say your goal (“I want to drop five kilos”) then ask yourself “But why?” Whatever the answer, again ask: “But why?” Repeat five times, and bingo! There’s your unrecognised next-level incentive.