Find a way to reward yourself for exercising

COMMENTJanuary 22, 2012 

One of our most common New Year's resolutions is to get more exercise. Exercise ranks second in New Year's resolutions, right after our first goal of spending more time with friends and family.

In January, we head to the gym. One of eight new members join fitness clubs in January, and many gyms see a traffic surge of 30 to 50 percent in the first few weeks of the year," writes Derek Thompson in The New Atlantic.

By May, only 40 percent of us who vowed to go the gym kept their New Year's resolution.

We all know that exercise is good for us, a silver bullet when it comes to our health. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise controls weight, combats disease, lowers blood pressure, and increases our good cholesterol. Exercise reduces stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.

Exercise makes us look buff, improves our mood, reduces depression, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, and even helps our sex life.

When we are making our New Year's resolution, we are just too optimistic about our will power.

For many of us, including me, exercise is no fun, and it's hard to make ourselves do it.

In fact, the people who make the decision to exercise at the gym end up paying themselves not to go to the gym. Stefano Dellaviga and Ulrike Malmender did a famous study called "Paying Not to Go to the Gym" The researchers analyzed the decisions of 7,978 members of three US health clubs for more than three years

In this study people were offered a choice:

They could pay $70 for a monthly contract for the gym or they could pay $10 per session. Most chose the monthly contract. It seemed like a great deal.

As it turned out, people actually went to the gym fewer than five times a month. That means they paid $70 for the five sessions, which would otherwise cost them just $50.

We are overconfident about our ability to exercise willpower. Are we just lazy?

Not exactly. The problem is that we prefer an immediate small reward to a larger return later. Take eating a piece of delicious chocolate case. Suppose you could choose between one piece of chocolate cake now versus two pieces of chocolate cake six months later. Most people would choose the chocolate cake right away.

The larger reward comes later in some hazy future. It's the same with exercise.

As economists say, we "discount the future." We'd rather have that bird in the bush -- relaxing when we get home rather than forcing ourselves to do a workout.

Exercising self-control is tiring, especially after a hard day of work when our store of energy is depleted. Going to the gym takes a lot of time and effort. It's far better not to have to make the decision at all, to just have a routine. Even though I hate exercise I make myself do three miles on the treadmill every day at 5:30.

"Recently, a couple of Harvard graduates launched a program called Gym Pact based on the simple principle that if skipping the gym is a broken contract with ourselves, we ought to pay a penalty for slacking," writes Thompson.

"So Gym Pact charges your credit card a penalty of $5 each time you don't go. We hate to take a loss, find economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

I've seen an even more powerful way to make yourself work. One savvy writing instructor was working with students who could not write their papers on time.

He'd have them make a contribution of a hundred dollars to a cause they hated if they didn't finish their papers. He made them write out a check but promised to tear it up if they did their papers on time.

It worked.

What is the best way to keep your New Year's resolution to exercise? Make exercise a routine so you don't have to make a decision each day. And give yourself a reward. Just don't make it chocolate cake.


Judith Kleinfled is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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