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If you asked, most people would probably say they don’t get to the gym enough.
Motivation may start high but frequently fizzles quickly, and with it goes the regular workouts. That’s the problem researchers sought to solve with a new study released Wednesday.
They call it a megastudy: a new take on behavioral studies that looked at the gym attendance of over 60,000 people to discern the best ways to increase gym attendance.
Instead of looking at the efficacy of one workout program against a control group, this study tested 53 different tactics to compare how well they work against one another as well as a control group.
“If people are hoping to boost their physical activity or change their health behaviors, there are very low-cost behavioral insights that can be built into programs to help them achieve greater success,” said the study’s lead author Katy Milkman, the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”
Some of the most significant methods included planning when you work out, getting reminders, offering incentives and discouraging missing more than one planned work out in a row.
Planning, reminding and rewarding
The study, which published Wednesday in the journal Nature, tested programs over four weeks at 24 Hour Fitness gyms, where participants’ entries into the gym were recorded.
Simple programs that encouraged participants to plan their workouts ahead of time reminded them with a text message 30 minutes before they were scheduled to work out. The incentive, offering points worth about $0.22 on Amazon for each visit, increased the frequency of exercise by 9%, according to the study.
The program could be made even more effective if people were offered an extra incentive of about $0.09 to return to the gym after missing a scheduled visit, Milkman said.
“Obviously, the amount of money is trivial (we call our rewards ‘micro-incentives’ for a reason), but it draws attention to the idea of avoiding multiple missed visits,” said Milkman via email. “And that turned out to increase exercise by 27%.”
Conveying the popularity of exercise also seemed to increase how often people were hitting the gym, according to the study.
“By conveying that exercise is a growing trend, we were able to make workouts seem more appealing and that increased gym attendance by 24% during our 4-week intervention,” Milkman said via email.
One big takeaway is to keep coming back, said Heather Royer, professor of health economics at the University of California Santa Barbara. Royer was not part of the study.
“The best performing intervention is the one that rewards participants to come back to the gym after a workout. This might mean that (if) we fall off our plans we should try to encourage ourselves to get back to our plans,” Royer said.
Where this can go next
The study had helpful insights for those hoping to build exercise into more of their daily lives, but its impact stretches beyond that, Milkman said.
“We learn some about how hard it is to change habits, but the real contribution of the study is demonstrating how social scientists can benefit from working collaboratively in large teams,” said Brian Nosek, cofounder of the Center for Open Science and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Nosek reviewed the study but was not part of conducting it.
“Many of the questions we study are very complex, and the standard methods using small samples and simple experimental designs are not up to the task of providing good insight.”
Milkman said she sees this kind of study having important implications for the future.
“There are all sorts of policy applications from this kind of work,” she said. “When we have an important policy question and don’t know the best answer, pulling together dozens of scientists to quickly generate ideas and then testing them all at once is a worthwhile approach.”
The method has even been used to test the best messages to encourage people to get vaccinated, Milkman added.
“We’ve introduced a massive, collaborative approach to social science experimentation that we call the megastudy and argue that more investments should be made in this area,” she said. “The megastudy involves launching many parallel randomized controlled trials testing different hypotheses all at once with the same outcome variable so we can massively accelerate the pace of discovery.”