Would You Workout More, If Somebody Paid You?

Even among people who had just joined a gym and expected to visit regularly, getting paid to exercise did little to make their commitment stick, according to this study.

How do you motivate yourself to work out on those days when you’re feeling tired, achy, or overwhelmed? Many fitness trainers recommend giving yourself an incentive for working out, such as a special treat at the end of a full workout week or your favorite post-workout shake at the juice bar. After all, getting something you want should be enough to keep you motivated to work out, right?

Sadly, science has a different opinion… A team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University took a closer look at the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of incentives and rewards. Of the participants gathered for their study, 95% said they intended to hit the gym more than once a week. At the end of the six weeks, they averaged just one visit a week.

Many new gym members planned to visit thrice weekly. However, by the end of month three of their membership, just one-third of the group had kept to that intention.

To kick things up a notch, the researchers offered incentives. Anyone who visited the gym nine times during the six weeks (an average of 1.5 visits a week) would receive either a $30 Amazon gift card, a $60 Amazon gift card, or a moderately priced reward.

The control group only received the $30 gift card, no matter how many times they visited the gym. However, the group that received the $60 gift card didn’t spend more time at the gym than the $30 gift card group. In fact, the incentive did little to raise gym attendance. 14% of the participants didn’t revisit the gym after the first week, incentive or no. The only significant spike in attendance occurred during the final week the participants had to earn the prize. However, the spike was only 0.14 visits per week.

Even when the groups selected their prize at the onset of the study, they didn’t end up going to the gym. That sense of ownership intended to motivate them to earn their desired prize failed to achieve the chosen outcome. Even when the desired reward leads to slightly more gym visits, the research indicated that the difference was insignificant.

What does this mean for you? Simple: incentives are nice, but they aren’t going to keep you going to the gym. Forget incentives, prizes, and all the other gimmicks—to quote a Nike-clad Wolverine, “Just do it, bub!”


1. Mariana Carrera, Heather Royer, Mark Stehr, Justin Sydnor. “Can Financial Incentives Help People Trying to Establish New Habits? Experimental Evidence with New Gym Members.” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, 2017.