It Takes More Than Money to Stick With the Gym

CC BY 2.0. Hamza Butt -- Weightlifting at the gym

Offering financial incentives for workouts doesn't work because the approach is too simplistic.

Money can make people do a lot of things, but apparently a one-time $60 payment isn’t enough to get adults going to the gym for six weeks. This is the conclusion of a rather strange study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which offered several financial incentives ($60 cash, a $30 gift card, or a gift worth $30) to new gym members if they would attend the gym nine times within the first six weeks of joining.

The researchers found that the “incentives had only moderate impacts on attendance during members’ first 6 weeks and no effect on their subsequent visits.” They also discovered that new gym members were “extremely optimistic” about how often they would visit the gym and “there is a fast decline in their visit frequency over the first few months of membership.”

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone. For people who are well off enough to get a gym membership in the first place, $60 isn’t a huge deal – and certainly not enough to justify suffering and sweating for an hour multiple times a week if it’s not something one already enjoys doing.

Therein lies the key to success – enjoying the act of working out. If it’s awful and painful, then you’ll always find ways of resisting it. Exercise must become a natural part of life in order to become a habit.

As someone who never set foot in a gym until I was in my mid-20s, it’s taken me a long time to make it part of my regular routine. Now you could call me addicted. I do three intense workouts per week at a local CrossFit gym and have reached a level of fitness I never dreamed I’d achieve. Here are my thoughts on what helps a new exercise habit to ‘stick.’


If you join a gym, it has to be easy to reach in minimal time; otherwise, going there will feel like too much hassle. A gym in your building, on your block, or in the garage is ideal. My gym is a five-minute bike ride away, so I can leave less than 10 minutes before the class begins.


Some people love spending hours puttering around a gym, but that’s not realistic for me, nor many others. It’s important to feel like you’re getting work done in a limited period of time. That’s part of the reason why I love the hour-long classes that condense everything (warm-up, skill, strength training, and quick burner workout) into a set chunk of the day. If you’d rather run, swim, or bike, set a timer and commit to getting as much work done in a certain amount of time.


This is a financial incentive of another sort! If you pay through the nose for a membership (like I do at CrossFit – and believe me, it hurts), you’ll show up for class 3 times a week because the thought of wasting so much money is terrifying. By contrast, paying only $30 a month for a regular gym membership doesn’t hurt enough. At the same time, you have to believe you’re getting your money’s worth in the form of skills development, expert advice, good equipment, and physical results. If not, there’s little reason to keep going.


Up until recently, there was a worrying trend of people wanting to putting the responsibility for their health onto someone else. It's no one's job but your own to get your body in shape, but you have to want it badly enough. There are no quick fixes. In the words of Josh Bridges, an ex-Navy SEAL and elite CrossFit athlete, "Pay the man." You have to put in the work.


While self-discipline is the most important psychological element to a successful relationship with the gym, accountability helps a lot. This can be done by a friend who will give you heck for not meeting him/her at the gym as promised, a spouse to whom you’ve promised a lifestyle change, or a personal trainer who expects you to show up. Set up these accountability partners in advance and tell them what you’ll need in terms of encouragement.

New skills

It is very exciting to learn new skills, especially ones you never thought you'd learn. At risk of sounding like a CrossFit advertisement, I have fallen in love with barbell work, thanks to the excellent coaches at my local gym. (This is not the case everywhere.) Learning how to performs clean and jerks, snatches, deadlifts, and back squats, as well as some gymnastics-style movements like pull-ups and handstand pushups, has been empowering and thrilling. It adds an element of challenge to the regular grind of exercise.


Everyone needs results. These are the greatest incentive of all. I tell people, if you can stick with a workout routine for three months, you’ll start liking it. After six months, you’ll start seeing big results – and then you’re set. It’s addictive at that point because you know how great it feels and you want more of that. These physical results, however, are intimately tied to dietary change, which is something everyone should also explore when wanting to get in shape.