Yeah, we know: If you’re truly dedicated to losing weight and gaining muscle, then that should be motivation enough to get out of bed and hit the gym. At least that’s what the jacked dude at the squat rack will say, right between grunting his way through sets number 16 and 17.
And sure, we’re always going to recommend that you stick to a workout plan, and a gym routine, that’s both realistic and fun for you. But for mere mortals who struggle to stay on track with their gym schedule, every little bit of workout motivation helps. One particularly effective way to encourage people to work out also happens to be a particularly effective way to encourage people to do anything: pay them. As with most annoying but profitable endeavors—like, say, your job—making muscle gains is particularly enticing with some monetary gains to back them up. Disregard muscle soreness, acquire currency, so to speak.
There’s just one catch: Simply paying yourself to work out doesn’t necessarily translate to a more robust gym schedule, as a new raft of behavioral research shows. For example: As part of a 2013-2015 study published in Health Affairs, the University of Pennsylvania offered discounts on health insurance payments for obese workers if they lost 5% of their weight. After a year, none of the workers met the goal, no matter how the discounts were structured.
“Our study showed that the incentive is not what motivated people, at least in this design,” said lead study author Dr. Mitesh Patel, M.D., MBA, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Other incentives may work for a time, but ultimately don’t build sustained gym-going habits. As part of a different 2013 study [PDF] at Penn, economists tried to “bundle” instant gratification with the delayed gratification of going to the gym by giving some undergraduates fun audiobooks but telling them that they could only listen to the audiobooks at the gym. It worked for a time—students who received the books went about 50% more often—but after Thanksgiving break, the students’ motivation had dissolved.
So what’s the secret? Instead of simply paying people to work out, offer them the opportunity to make money by hitting the gym, and then threaten to take it away if they fail, according to a new study from Penn Medicine.
In the study, once again led by Patel, 281 participants were tasked with racking up 7,000 steps a day for 26 weeks. For the first 13 weeks of the study, the participants were split into four groups, each differing by reward structure:
— Group 1: No reward
— Group 2: $1.40 a day for each successful 7,000-step day ($42 a month)
— Group 3: A possible lottery prize of $1.40 a day
— Group 4: A “loss incentive” group who received $42 at the start of each month, but then lost $1.40 a day for each day they failed to reach 7,000 steps.
The results: Groups 1-3 performed about the same, suggesting that even incremental cash rewards don’t inspire people to hit the gym much. But Group 4 turned up the heat, achieving the goal of 7,000 steps about 50% more often than the other groups, according to the results published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Bottom line: “Our findings demonstrate that the potential of losing a reward is a more powerful motivator,” Dr. Kevin Volpp, M.D., Ph.D., a senior study author and the director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, said in a press release.
That concept, called “loss aversion,” is behind several apps and services designed to help people leverage their wallets to improve their waistlines. Some, like HealthyWage or DietBet, challenge participants to bet money on their weight loss goals; succeed and you improve on your initial ante, but fail and your money goes into the pot where others can earn it. Pact works similarly, and pairs with a Fitbit-compatible app to track your gym progress or diet.
Other services are more general, but they still hinge on loss aversion. With stickK, for example, you could stake your progress in cash, and then set the money to go to a charity if you fail. And if you’re feeling extra masochistic and/or dedicated, you could even offer that money to a charity you loathe.
No way in hell you’re handing money to some scumbag, right? That is loss aversion in action. Now get your *ss in the gym—your bank account is depending on it.