Why are markets in exercise discipline imperfect?

by on February 15, 2006 at 7:28 am in Economics | Permalink

Exercise is statistically correlated with better health, but weight is not.  That suggests you should exercise more.  Furthermore some exercise is much better than no exercise at all, so you can be happy with a modest achievement. 

Why don’t we rely more on markets to force ourselves to exercise?

Post a bond with your friend, your spouse, your exercise partner, or someone you won’t (or can’t) lie to.  You lose the money if you don’t exercise according to a pre-arranged plan with well-defined quantitative goals.  If need be, I will serve in this role and cash your check when it comes in the mail (hey, would you lie to your blogger?).   

Or why not have the gym collect a bigger upfront fee, and they pay you each time you show up and complete an exercise program under their supervision?

What are the problems with these arrangements?

1. The roles of friend or spouse do not mix with that of "Enforcer."  That being said, I bet your spouse is willing to enforce her requirements on you.  And surely she wants you to live longer, so why not extend the scope of her enforcement just a wee bit?

2. The payment, if you lose, is not a real transfer.  You share funds with your spouse and your friend will treat is as a gift to be returned.  Fair enough, but then find a real bastard, a corporation, or an amiable but distant blogger.

3. You enjoy exercise, but not if you feel obliged to do it.  Introducing too many external incentives takes away the possibility of developing internal motivation.  (Similarly, if you pay your kid to do the dishes, she will no longer feel obliged and the total quantity of labor may fall.)  If the exercise arena becomes a regular sphere of money loss and humiliation, you will avoid the exercise idea altogether.  After a while you will stop making these contracts.

4. You don’t really want to exercise more in the first place.

I put most of my money on #3.

We hear all this superficial blather about "life being a process."  This is true, but it is less well-recognized that this is a source of institutional failure.  Most good things you do — and I include charity on this list — you do not for the ends themselves, but because you have somehow managed to enjoy the process of regular engagement and self-discipline.  You then deceive yourself into thinking you value the end more than you do.  This creates social order, but it also makes those same commitments fragile.  Whether you are meta-rational or not, you are unlikely to seek brutal market discipline (or advice columnists, for that matter) to enforce your good behavior.  You prefer to play the happy fool, even though you will die earlier and refuse to break up with the creep you are currently dating, no matter how many of your friends tell you he is ultimately a loser.

The alternative methods?: Fantasize about the relationship between exercise and more and better sex, whether or not it is there at the margins you face.  Build fantasy upon fantasy to make the area a source of fun.  Or try self-prophecy.

Addendum: Economist Art DeVany has intricate theories about exercise, based on his understanding of evolutionary biology.  Run sprints, not marathons.  Art reports on his blog how devastated he is from the recent death of his wife; do read this moving tale.

scott cunningham February 15, 2006 at 8:52 am

I’ve tried this kind of thing a lot, but with little success, because I always chose my wife as the Enforcer. The only way the wife is a good Enforcer is with situations where you are trying to avoid some act, like viewing pornography or spending money needlessly. Then, she makes an excellent enforcer – the credible threat is there. But, if you’re trying to develop a strategy to exercise more – as you note – I don’t think she can be the other part of the transaction, since resources are pooled and a transfer won’t feel like you’ve lost anything unless you are a family with very strict budget-keeping (ie, you have a certain allocation of monthly “husband funds” and “wife funds” and lose some of it if you fail to exercise). Using an outside person might be the way to go on this one – maybe a colleague at work.

John P. February 15, 2006 at 10:26 am

I would put my money on no. 4, too.

Additional thoughts:

— Tyler writes, “Most good things you do — and I include charity on this list — you do not for the ends themselves, but because you have somehow managed to enjoy the process of regular engagement and self-discipline. . . . This creates social order, but it also makes those same commitments fragile.” I guess that may explain pledge drives, walk-a-thons, and the like? (I.e., the fun factor of charity needs to be continually renewed.)

— As for exercise, opportunity cost is the biggest problem for me. The time I spend exercising has to come out of my reading time. (I’m totally incapable of reading while exercising, and audio versions are rarely available for what I want to read). Therefore, I will exercise only if I believe that it will result in a net increase of reading time or reading volume. Adding more years at the end of my life doesn’t do the trick, because I expect that I will be a less efficient reader at the end of my life, plus I can make better use of what I read if I read it now, while I’m in my prime. Is there any evidence that, say, exercising for half an hour will enable me to read more in 90 minutes than I could in 2 hours without exercising?

I would welcome any thoughts Tyler or others may have on this issue.

Oskar Shapley February 15, 2006 at 10:55 am

Hire the “Exercisers, Inc.”, who I heard are a new subsidiary of the Quitters, Inc. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quitters,_Inc_(Stephen_King) ], a company with the noble cause of saving others since 1985. But remember, a deal is a deal.

TomC February 15, 2006 at 11:34 am

I don’t think a “market” works if you try to sell to yourself… If you’re interested in the money, it’s simplest not to put any money into the “market”. Maybe if insurance companies consistently gave rate reductions on life insurance – but that’s just one more level of indirection.

We do have some effective markets in weight loss. You can pay a plastic surgeon for liposuction, or get a stomach stapel. Some diet drugs work – though I haven’t heard of any that don’t have dangerous side effects. If you’re willing to pay more for your food, you can buy higher quality food, well prepared, that tastes really great, but includes less fat, starch and sugar. If you’re willing to pay enough time and money, you can engage in activities that are intrinsically fun and non-painful exercise.

Ultimately the problem is that we know that we could save money by eating less, but eating is too much of a pleasure to give up.

Zubon February 15, 2006 at 11:48 am

John P.,
Consult your local librarian. Public libraries frequently have audio book collections and can have titles shipped from other libraries. And I do mean “talk to the librarian,” not just consult what is available. Ask for whoever is in charge of the audio collection. She will know the most about what is available, and she probably is the one who orders titles. If it is a large library, they may have someone who specifically develops a collection for people with disabilities, and at the worst someone should know other resources you can consult, like an audio book rental place or local center for the blind. You do not need to be blind to ask for help, and most such librarians want to help people who are inquiring into their areas. People are sitting on information just waiting to be asked about it.

Perhaps you have already checked everything and found that your reading tastes really are that unusual: no audio versions exist. In seeing what is available, however, you will have found thousands of titles. Might one of them appeal to you somewhat, even if it is not the next book you planned to read? You now have the utility of thirty minutes of sub-optimal reading plus the health benefits of thirty minutes of exercise, weighed against thirty minutes of optimal reading. You must judge for yourself how close of a substitute the available books are.

If you assign no weight to the benefits of exercise, only to reading, then you will probably favor just reading. On the economist’s other hand, exercise is supposed to reduce the amount of sleep you need, although it seems unlikely that it is a 1:1 trade-off. Still, at the margin, the relevant question may be exercise vs. sleep, not reading, so how much do you value being unconscious? Include that as a health benefit of exercise, and exercise + available audio book might have a better chance.

One last note on sub-optimal reading: constrained choices may reveal new preferences to you. You might find a new author or such that you like in this way, under the “try the best of the worst” theory. Get a recommendation for the best book of a type you would not normally read, and that book will probably be on audio (the most recommended titles often are). Alternately, some audio book performances are good performances in and of themselves, whatever the book may be. You get a cross between a book and a radio drama, a different sort of utility to find.

Or maybe you will end up with lousy audio books that make you never want to exercise again for fear of being forced to sit through another one, but then you get your reading time back. Win-win?

John P. February 15, 2006 at 12:19 pm

Zubon, thanks for your thoughtful analysis. The exercise vs. sleep trade-off appears to hold the most promise for me. I suppose I should try some experiments with it.

fmb February 15, 2006 at 12:41 pm

Not sure if this link works:

http://64.233.179.104/search?q=cache:QR3XWjtFxPoJ:www.rae-chorze-fwaz.com/yoohoo.html+great+yoohoo+challenge&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1

if not, google great yoohoo challenge and look at the cached version of the top response.

It’s a first-person account of an attempt of several people to force ourselves to exercise. Irrelevant to the topic at hand, but coloring the account, is the author’s cult membership. The original instigator had already lost many cash bets with family members, and ultimately had too much money to care, but this did not help him either.

Hiring a trainer or signing up for a class is a common trick people use to exercise. Somehow the annoyance of paying for a missed session seems to be more effective than gym memberships.

Alcibiades February 15, 2006 at 12:54 pm

I tried this with diet (if I eat chocolate, fine me $10, etc.) and unless your enforcer believes in the power of incentives (over self-perceived kindness and grace) it won’t work out. I.e., they won’t fine you, will pretend they don’t see you eating chocolate.

neil February 15, 2006 at 1:47 pm

Or why not have the gym collect a bigger upfront fee, and they pay you each time you show up and complete an exercise program under their supervision?

It seems to me like this is how gyms work already. You give them a fee up front and they give you nothing. Then, every time you come in, they let you use their facilities for free. It’s not a cash payment but it is obviously something of value. You get more value out of the gym the more often you go; and they have an economic interest in you not coming as often as you could.

tylerh February 15, 2006 at 3:53 pm

If the spouse is going to participate in this transaction, I suggest my Uncle’s weight loss plan. My aunt asked him to go on a diet. He said, “okay, every day I’ll come home for lunch and we’ll have sex instead of a meal.” Seemed to work. Likewise, gym visits could be correlated with conjugal visits. I leave the details as an excercise for the reader.

DF February 15, 2006 at 4:37 pm

TC: Or why not have the gym collect a bigger upfront fee, and they pay you each time you show up and complete an exercise program under their supervision?

This scares the bejesus out of me. For the first time in my life, I think that a fella@econ.gmu has a GREAT idea.

Half Sigma February 15, 2006 at 5:41 pm

Patrick, the problem with your theory is that being overweight didn’t just correlate with the same mortality, it correlated with LOWER mortality. According to the study, there would be fewer deaths from disease each year of people gained some more weight.

Lee February 15, 2006 at 8:46 pm

As for reading and exercise, riding a stationary bike 30 minutes a day has increased my word-intake. I don’t like the recumbent bike position especially, and heart rates in excess of 150 make difficult books and music hard to appreciate, but those 30 minutes are perfect for newspapers and magazines. After I get home, I take a short nap. Afterward, I’m much more clear-headed and able to focus on reading than I am without this whole regimen.

But I agree with Tyler: I’ve learned to appreciate the process; it’s all become a ritual that I enjoy, and I rarely think about the healthful ends it is supposed to serve.

anon February 15, 2006 at 10:21 pm

uh that study used “body mass index” which is a terrible indicator. I’m quite overweight on the BMI, but i have little bodyfat: muscle weighs a lot more than fat.

Its also not an intervention study: the people who are natually thin generally never learn to eat their fruits & vegetables or exercise, where as moderatly overweight people are doing these things. Do you realize just how small a group of people who actually eat well and exercise and control their calories? Finally, old people who are underweight are ususally not that way because they’re doing lots of athletic things, but because they already have some disease that made them lose lots of weight. That study is mainly useful to make people who make symbolic motions at living healthily feel better about their failure.

Arianto Patunru February 16, 2006 at 5:45 am

Why are you making it so complicated? Just register in a fitness club. Pay one year membership fee upfront (with some discount if you’re lucky). Then you’d feel obliged to excercise. You don’t even need a spouse as enforcer. Just a market.

odograph February 16, 2006 at 8:07 am

I know I’m going off topic now … but if you have places you can walk or bike to (I didn’t realize how many I had until I started loooking), that recreation kills a few birds with one stone. Think about what you read, listent to music or a podcast, save a trip in the car, pick up some groceries or rent a movie, etc.

(It amuses me sometimes when I’m riding a bike across town to see someone in gym clothes getting in a large SUV. They paid for the gym, they paid for the SUV, they paid for the gas … and they gotta drive ten minutes before they excercise. I won’t even suppose they are going to a “spin” class. That would be too sad.)

DK February 16, 2006 at 3:30 pm

For the Markets in Everything dept. Apparently the market supports #4:
http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/stories/0216gymbribes.html
The Associated Press
Published on: 02/16/06

PENSACOLA, Fla. — An Escambia County middle school gym teacher let children sit out his class if they paid a $1 bribe daily, netting him perhaps thousands of dollars, officials said Thursday.

Tracy W April 6, 2006 at 5:19 pm

odograph – I drive to the gym sometimes (though not in my SUV as I don’t own one). I drive partly because my husband gets stressed about me being out walking when it’s dark, and partly because I am an utter wimp about exercising when it’s wet and cold. So if I was to restrict myself to biking or walking to the gym, I wouldn’t go on all those days when it’s either dark or miserable outside.

Anonymous October 14, 2008 at 12:44 am

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