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Don Cunningham: Exercise Economics and the Psychology of Consumerism

By Colin McEvoy on March 5, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on March 5, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

If you bought a gym membership after the holidays as part of a pledge to start working out, chances are you’ve stopped going by now. If you went at all.

You’re not alone.

A study last year of 5,300 American gym members found that 63% of them never use the gym and 82% go on average less than once a week.

While gyms come and go, the industry is big business — with more than $30 billion in annual revenue. Nearly 61 million Americans have a gym membership, that’s one in five adults.

Prices vary widely across different markets and gyms, but the average annual cost is $696 per year or $58 a month. Planet Fitness is by far the cheapest of the large national chains with just a $164 annual cost, and a $10 per month fee.

Each January, there’s a 50 percent increase in new memberships. By March, nearly 95 percent of those new members have stopped going, according to an industry consulting report.

Count me in to this number.

I joined Planet Fitness this year — and have yet to go.

The cheapness appealed to me. I figured at $10 per month it was less than the cost of a bourbon and had the benefit of substituting exercise for alcohol.

It hasn’t worked yet, but hope springs eternal.

Until recently, our basement was littered with the exercise remnants of good intentions. Yoga mats, exercise DVDs, Bowflex machines, universal gyms, dumbbells and stationary bikes. It looked like a fitness museum spanning three decades. It included a box of something with rubber bands and springs that requires connecting to a doorknob.

My wife Lynn likes to order stuff online.

She likes the thought of working out and losing weight and can become very motivated in a chair during commercials. Unfortunately, the motivation doesn’t carry over to the arrival of the equipment.

Until last month we had about $5,000 of workout gear gathering dust in the basement. Water damage required a carpet replacement that necessitated moving the exercise machines, which required more exertion and lifting than interested us, so Lynn sold it all as a package deal on Facebook Market for $575.

Her advertisement called it “lightly used.” Turns out, it’s a fine line between lightly and never. She used the Bowflex machine two or three times and declared it too hard.

“It didn’t look that hard on TV,” she said when I asked her why she wasn’t using it.

“Isn’t it supposed to be hard?” “Not that damn hard.”

Bowflex died an early death and was added to the equipment graveyard before it reached adolescence.

Again, we are not alone.

Peddling exercise equipment is a money maker. In the U.S., it generates about $6 billion a year in annual sales with more than half of the purchases for home use. Sales increased every year during the last decade.

It’s behavioral economics at its finest, the psychology of consumerism. The better angels of our nature will guide us to purchases with the intention of doing something better. The advertisers can motivate the buying, just not the using.

Hence, a great used gym equipment resale market. Online platforms have made it easier to resell the equipment, but as we found out, it’s competitive out there. All that unused equipment floods into the Internet sales sites, driving down prices.

Other than needing to disassemble and move all the stuff out of our basement, our buyer got a deal. He’s much smarter than us. He shaved $3,000 from the cost of the machine by buying used. We threw in the universal gym and stationary bike just to clear the basement and start fresh.

Lynn’s taking a new approach. No more buying exercise equipment. She’s joined a gym.

As I mentioned, the average national monthly gym cost is $58. She found one that she really likes for $90 a month. They have treadmills where you can watch television programs from your own streaming accounts while you walk.

She walks for an entire episode of NCIS four times a week.

She’s beating the odds, still going strong in March. Better than me.

Of course, walks around the neighborhood are free, which is where I usually walk and run. The cemetery down the street is my favorite. It creates some extra motivation to keep the heart beating.

It didn’t go over well when I mentioned to her that maybe we should quit the gyms and use the free outdoors.

“They have really nice towels there and someday I may use the weight machines,” she said with an incredulous look that translated to just shut up.

I was dumb enough to continue the conversation.

We could walk together, I said.

“I don’t like talking while I’m walking. I like watching TV.”

To Lynn’s credit, she’s figured out her own motivators to actually use the gym. She’s now driving up the averages for gym use, losing weight and feeling good.

As we were cleaning up the basement after The Great Gym Equipment Purge of 2020, I found a lone yoga mat hiding under a coffee table. The relic of a well-intentioned yoga phase.

The mat was never opened.

“Remember that one?” I said to Lynn

She laughed.

“I decided I don’t like exercising on the floor.”

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