To gym, or not to gym

It is no startling revelation that people of the modern age are larger than their counterparts from only a few decades ago, and I’m not talking vertically. Cutely chubby, big-boned, and pleasantly plump – there is certainly no shortage of terms we use to describe the surge of our waist sizes and pot bellies.

In response to this growing obesity epidemic, health and fitness advocates have widely educated the general populace about the importance of eating well and exercising regularly. The vast array of marketing campaigns, aimed towards fighting obesity and improving health, has seen a major influx of consumers purchasing gym memberships within the last ten years.[1]

And yet, even with the extensive advertising of a healthy lifestyle floating in the air, statistics show that 67% of people with gym memberships never use them.[2] Throughout this article, I will be attempting to answer from an economic perspective why the aforementioned figure is so high, and what you can do to prevent yourself from falling into the entrapment of a gym.

A very common phenomenon occurs where a person makes a resolution (often at New Year’s) to start going to the gym, only to stop a couple of weeks in. In a surprising twist, more Australians sign up for gym memberships in August rather than January, when spending is at its lowest. Diana Mousina, a CommBank Economist, suggests this is due to Australians “heading indoors to the gym to prepare for summer”, exercising during the “dark and wintery conditions in August”, to eventually “swap the treadmill for the great outdoors” in January.[3]

While theoretically sound, we can readily deduce the shortcomings of such a program.  ‘Winter blues’, a less severe form of the condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), causes those inflicted to suffer varying degrees of depression and weariness, amongst other symptoms.[4] While the exact cause is unknown, scientists suspect the amount of sunlight we’re exposed to plays a significant role in deciding our mood, with a lack of sunlight triggering the symptoms described above. As the period between late-July and August boasts the least hours of daylight, a sizeable portion of the populace typically experiences general tiredness and laziness during this time – not good when making both the commitment and investment to become fit!

Our opportunity cost increases because our next best alternative becomes considerably more attractive when faced with such conditions; we’d much rather stay within the warmth of our home than change into sportswear and make the journey to our closest gym! Consequently, after the initial euphoria of running and lifting wears off, it becomes easier and easier to succumb to the ‘winter blues’ and leave gym memberships in the back corner of the wallet to gather dust.

Economists also use the notion of ‘hyperbolic discounting’ when explaining the high rate of people who don’t utilise their gym memberships. This is the theory where, given two similar rewards, we would choose the one that arrives first over the one that comes later.[5] While this sounds intuitive, if we extend the model to produce two dissimilar rewards, our decision becomes slightly more complex. According to the theory, we tend to ‘discount’ the value of the later reward by a factor proportional to the length of the delay. Depending on one’s goals, the amount of time required in the gym ranges from a couple of months to years on end. Indeed, losing weight and keeping it off involves a lifestyle shift, with simply losing the desired weight taking many months to accomplish!

Returning to our previous scenario, the obvious benefits of staying home, such as relishing in the comfort of a warm room or watching TV, are realised immediately, while there are practically zilch benefits from going to the gym just once. Eventually, we develop a mindset where we say to ourselves “I’ll do it tomorrow”, and come the next day, we’ll say it again, and again, until the point where we cannot break out of the cycle and simply stop altogether.

Ultimately, while economic principles present a rational explanation of why the percentage of people who cease using their gym memberships is so high, it all boils down to the fact that we are lazy and lack motivation to stick with long-term programs. The missing ingredient in many people’s dishes is the immediate benefit of going to the gym. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic puts it nicely:

“Go to the gym once, and the results can be hard to see. Collect a check at the gym, and the results are in your pocket.”[6]

Since it is difficult to collect checks or receive money at the gym, the real solution, as found by a couple of Harvard graduates, is to penalise yourself for not going to the gym.[7] Known as a ‘Gym Pact’, this is the idea where skipping gym is equivalent to a broken contract, incurring a penalty of at least $5 for each skip. Having a friend to enforce the pact cuts the possibility of cheating, especially if they aren’t a particularly close friend whom you would want to be giving $5 to every other day!

Australia has developed a reputation as one of the fattest countries on the planet as a result of the sedentary lifestyle that an overwhelming proportion of its citizens have adopted. Recognising the significance of exercising  and maintaining a long-term commitment to going to the gym will undoubtedly help alleviate the mounting issues Australia faces due to her oversized configuration.








[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

5 thoughts on “To gym, or not to gym”

  1. Fantastic article Tommy; very informative and very close to home. Great work!

    I was wondering though, although a ‘Gym Pact’ is an interesting solution to hyperbolic discounting, doesn’t periodic direct debit membership payments to the gym itself, already serve this purpose? I understand that the pact is a penalty system, however doesn’t paying for a membership you don’t use achieve the same negative reinforcement? How does paying a friend differ from paying the gym? Thanks Tom

    • Thanks Ari! Really appreciate it!

      I understand where you’re coming from, however the difference once again relates to the immediate benefit, or in this instance penalty, which is incurred from not going to the gym one time. With monthly direct debit payments, the money is deducted from our account at the end of each month, and it is only then that we physically see a loss. The prices for these type of contracts is typically less then the price we would have to pay if we were to purchase daily memberships every day for a whole month. Thus, we would easily be able to tell ourselves that we can make up for not going to the gym on a specific day by going the next couple of days. With the Gym Pact, the loss is immediate and tangible, $5 out of your pocket. On top of the money we already pay to the gym, this creates a bigger incentive to go since not only is it $5 disappearing from our account straight away, but it could accumulate to quite a large sum of money if left unchecked!

  2. Great article Tommy. Bottom line (pardon the pun) is that inertia or resistance to change always seem to win the day when it comes to exercise or any lifestyle change for that matter. Much research has shown that its the small changes on a regular or daily basis that you can include in your lifestyle that tend to have an impact. I like the “Gym Pact” idea though and like your economic theory spin on the age old gap between what we think we need to do or want to do and what we actually do in our lives. Thanks Owen

    • Thanks Owen! Appreciate the comment!

      I do agree, in my opinion one of the biggest mistakes that people make when attempting a lifestyle change is that they try too much at one time. While certainly possible, it is incredibly hard to completely alter one’s lifestyle off-the-bat and sticking with it in the long run. This is part of the reason why we see so many diets fail, or people initially losing a lot of weight, only to put it back on in the months after. Taking it slow and steady with small changes at a time until you’re ready both mentally and physically to make the lifestyle switch is without a doubt the better option.

  3. A timely article, I just signed up at the gym today, in August, after being one of those 67% that didn’t use a previous membership. Good to know I am in the majority for a change.

    If I struggle to build a routine this time around, maybe you can be the benefactor of my Gym Pact Tom ;)

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