January is the busiest month for health clubs to sign up new members, as people try to make good on their New Year’s resolutions. But few show up often enough to justify the expense.
Economists have some theories about why that's the case.
“The cost of getting out of bed, driving to the gym, and so forth, weighs more heavily than the long-term health benefits,” says Dan Acland, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Acland says when people consider whether to hit the gym, the payoff might seem too remote. Instead they focus on the immediate barriers, a tendency called “present bias.” (A yet fancier term, “quasi hyperbolic discounting,” describes the tendency through a mathematical model).
Acland says when folks plunk down money on new gym memberships to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions, they're often overly optimistic that the current barriers to working out will go away.
“We say that they are naive with respect to their future self control problems,” Acland says.
The result is that about half the people with health club memberships are no-shows, according to Justin Sydnor, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He says a lot of people think the money they spend on gym memberships will push them to exercise more. But Sydnor says the gym might be part of the problem.
“Is the gym the easiest place, is it the place that you're not going to struggle as much on a daily basis to go to?” he asks.
That’s a question that Jenel Farrell of St. Paul, Minn. has been facing as she considers a gym membership at her local YWCA. Farrell has cancelled a membership at a yoga center across town because she couldn’t drag herself there often enough to get her money’s worth. But she hopes to hit the Y more regularly and meet one of her recurring New Year’s goals.
“It's always fitness,” she says. “And the other thing is chew my food slower.”