The Hidden Cost of Joining a Gym

Thank you to NordVPN for supporting PBS. Welp, it’s 2020! Now be honest, how many of you decided to
kick off the new decade by making a resolution to get into shape? Does this sound familiar? You head into your local gym, the bodybuilders
are pumpin’, the club music’s bumping, the smoothie station is… blending. And a sales rep presents you with a “menu”
of contract options: Yo, you ready to get jacked? Sweet. You can sign up for a whole year for $600. Or on a month-to-month basis for $58 a month. OR pay-per-visit for $10 a day. So… which one should I choose? The “New You” plans on working out 3 times
a week, so the cost-per-visit for each plan shakes out like this. We’re not including
those extra “startup” fees, since most of the time, those only exist so they can
be waived, to make you feel like you’re getting a bargain. From a purely mathematical standpoint, the
annual contract makes the most sense. And, maybe by “locking yourself in,” you’ll
be more likely to stick to your resolution. Psychologists call this strategy “precommitment,”
when your present self tries to control the behavior of your future self by making obligations
that your future self can’t get out of. Social scientist Jon Elster cited the story
of Odysseus and the Sirens as a classic example of precommitment. The Sirens were creatures of Greek mythology
whose beautiful songs lured sailors to wreck their ships on the rocks. Odysseus wanted to hear the Sirens’ songs,
so he instructed his men to tie him to the mast. In other words, he didn’t trust his future
self to resist temptation, so he took steps to limit his own freedom. In the same way, gym members tie themselves
to a financial commitment to prevent their future selves from succumbing to the temptation
of not working out. Essentially, precommitment is an admission
of weakness. So, does it work? Sometimes, yes. Setting up an automatic withdrawal on your
paycheck into an investment account is a good way of precommitting to a savings plan. And buying healthy food at the grocery store
does precommit you to cooking at home rather than eating out. But when it comes to gym memberships… the
results are a little less optimistic. According to a survey of over 5,000 American
gym members, 82% go less than once a week, and 22% stop going completely after 6 months. So much for precommitment. In light of those odds, maybe it’s best
to go with the monthly contract. Sure, it costs a bit more, but at least if
my future self betrays me I can drop out and cut my losses. Right? Maybe not. Another study on the habits of gym-goers (or,
non-gym-goers) found that members who subscribed to a $70 monthly program ended up using it
only 4.3 times per month. Even though their gyms had a $10 per visit
option, they were essentially paying $17 per visit! And here’s where it gets weird: the whole
point of these monthly plans is that you can cancel whenever you want. But people in the monthly plans were actually
17% more likely than annual members to keep their subscriptions going after 12 months…
even if they weren’t using them! Future Self, what the heck is wrong with you? The answer is that monthly subscribers were
on an “auto-renewal” program, which simply charged their credit cards every month without
needing explicit permission from the customer. Because it’s a passive transaction, these
auto-renewals don’t cause much “negative utility,” what economists call the emotional
pain of losing money. If those people had to actually hand over
70 bucks in cash on the first of every month, a lot more of them probably would’ve cancelled
their memberships. Auto-renewals, or “evergreen clauses,”
are pretty ubiquitous these days, and they are convenient. Imagine having to manually renew every regular
service you use! But some companies are less than forthright
about it, hiding the clause behind free trials or making cancelling an overcomplicated process. You often won’t even be notified when your
subscription is renewed. They want you to forget about them. Gym memberships are especially tough to cancel,
because it feels like admitting defeat. And many gyms charge re-sign up fees that
make members just keep paying in the hopes that maybe they’ll start using it again. It sounds like a broken system, but this is
actually how it’s designed to function. See, running a gym is actually really expensive. High utility bills, big spaces filled with
tons of fancy equipment, a large staff of trained professionals… in order to pay for
all this, they have to sign up way more people than the facility can actually serve. Major fitness chains commonly recruit between
5 to 10 thousand members per location… which have max capacities of around 3 to 5 hundred
people. If just 5% of their members showed up at the
same time, they’d have to start turning people away. So despite all those motivational posters
and slogans, they’re counting on the vast majority of their members to rarely (or never)
use the service they pay for. The silver lining is that if you happen to
be one of the small minority who actually uses your gym regularly, well, you’re makin’
out like a bandit. 3 or 4 dollars a visit is an incredible steal,
only made possible by all those other resolution-breakers who are subsidizing your wellness. Now, of course we’re not saying that you
shouldn’t try to get into shape! Regular exercise is one of the best things
you can do for your body, mind, and pocketbook, since many expensive medical problems can
be prevented with a healthy lifestyle. But there are cheaper ways to kickstart it. For instance, you can buy a nice pair of running
shoes or a bicycle and chart a course through your neighborhood. Home fitness equipment like weights, bands,
even machines can get pretty pricey, but at least once you own them, you don’t have
to keep paying every month. There are also lots of inexpensive apps and
online courses and free YouTube videos that can help get you started. Many fitness experts will say that the most
important thing isn’t what equipment you use, or how many calories you burn in a day,
but finding a way to make exercise a lifetime habit. So how do you do that? Don’t look at us, this is a financial show! But, we can say that making big financial
commitments doesn’t seem to work. If you already exercise three times a week,
joining a gym can be a great bargain. But if you’re just starting out, don’t
think you can extort your future self into exercising with the threat of a deadweight
loss. Turns out our future selves are pretty crafty
at wriggling out of precommitments. Especially when the pain of losing money
is no match for the pain I’m gonna feel in
my legs tomorrow. And that’s our two cents! We’d like to thank NORD VPN for supporting PBS. magine VPN as a secure, encrypted tunnel for online traffic to flow. Nobody can see through the tunnel and get their hands on your internet data. NordVPN allows you to use public Wi-Fi in coffee shops or hotels, or anywhere else that you’re on someone else’s network. That way you can access personal and work accounts on the road, or simply keep your browsing history to yourself. They don’t log your activity while you’re online, they’ve got thousands of servers in 60 countries, and 24/7 customer support. To learn more about NordVPN, just check out the link in the description! So tell us! What is your favorite or most effective fitness product you’ve ever bought for yourself? Tell us in the comments!

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