This American study randomly assigned 117 first year college students to receive pay for going to the gym, vs not receiving pay for their efforts. Weekly pay for the paid group ranged between $10 to $38.75 USD, with higher pay each week if they were consistent in their attendance.
After 3 months, they found that 63% of students in the paid group met their attendance goals at the gym, with only 13% of students who were not getting paid meeting those goals. However, weight increased in both groups, with no difference in the amount of weight gained in each group. Both groups gained about 1kg (just over 2 lb) during the three months of the study, which is a typical rate of weight gain during the the first year in college (contrary to the popular belief of the Freshman 15, the average university student gains only a few pounds in the first year).
So what does this teach us? Well, besides showing that cash is a strong incentive (money talks!), it is worthwhile to consider why both groups gained weight, and the same amount of weight at that. The study didn’t monitor what type of exercise was done at the gym – they just had to be there for 30 minutes. So if a person goes to the gym and stretches for 30 minutes, there won’t be much calorie burn. Secondly, while exercise is important for overall health and weight maintenance, weight management is 90% about the food intake, and 10% about the exercise. So if a student walked for 30 minutes on a treadmill (burning about 150 calories), and picked up a Kit Kat from the vending machine at the front door (about 260 calories), the balance is still in favor of weight gain.
There are some interesting online/app sites that use cash incentives to help motivate gym attendance, where you pay if you don’t meet your gym attendance goals, and you get paid if you do (the amount of money paid by those who don’t attend is divvied up to those who do). If any of my readers has tried this, I would love to hear your feedback!
Thanks to the Canadian Obesity Network and the Obesity + Alert system for the heads’ up on this study!
Dr Sue Pedersen www.drsue.ca © 2013
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