A year ago, I bought an elliptical trainer — a gym-quality machine that I felt certain would get a daily workout.
Today, my top-of-the-line exercise machine sits idle most of the time. But I##m not alone. Every year, consumers spend an estimated $4 billion on home treadmills, stationary bikes, Stairmasters and other equipment that ends up gathering dust. A Consumer Reports survey last year found that nearly 40 percent of those who buy home exercise machines say they use them less than they expected.
This may be discouraging to people like me, but it is a source of fascination for behavioral scientists. The hope is that by better understanding the behavior, they can help people make better buying decisions — and help them start exercising and stick with it.
Buying an exercise machine does seem to influence whether people start working out. But some research suggests that the same people are less likely to stick with exercise over time than people who don##t own home equipment.
In October, the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine reported on a study of 205 sedentary adults who were encouraged to begin an exercise program. At 6 months, about half had done so, but by 12 months, about a third of those people had stopped.
People with a home exercise machine were 73 percent more likely to start exercising. But by the end of the year, they were also 12 percent more likely to have quit than people in the study who did not have home equipment.
This doesn##t mean a home exercise machine leads to less exercise. It just means that having home equipment is not the most important factor. What matters more is “self-efficacy” — a deep-seated belief that we really do have the power to achieve our goals. In the Annals study, those who scored high on psychological measures of self-efficacy were nearly three times as likely to be exercising after a year as those with lower self-efficacy scores, whether or not they owned an exercise machine.
Meeting your own expectations also influences whether you stick with exercise. Study participants who were satisfied with the results of their exercise plan were twice as likely to keep it up as those who were not.
While believing that you can do it and being happy with your results may seem to be obvious parts of success, researchers say that people often fail to take these psychological issues into account when they start an exercise plan.
“What is your confidence in your ability to stick to your exercise program when you##re on vacation, when you##re not feeling well, when you##re busy?” asked David Williams, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, who led the exercise study. “The message isn##t that home exercise equipment doesn##t work. It##s just one very small piece of the puzzle, because it might make it easier to exercise, but they still have to motivate themselves to do it.”
Williams said there were simple ways to increase the likelihood that you will keep exercising. Working out with friends or family members, mastering an exercise (like the proper way to use gym equipment), and working with someone who motivates you, like a personal trainer, all build confidence and bolster the chances of sticking with it.
But consumers need to distinguish between real motivation to exercise and the unrealistic optimism that often takes over when they are shopping for a new exercise machine.
“Most goals we set for ourselves tend to be unrealistically high,” said Ravi Dhar, director of the Yale Center for Customer Insights and a professor of marketing and psychology. “When you buy these machines, you probably end up focusing on one or two attributes, like how easy it is to use or having it in your home. You##re not thinking about the barriers, what you##re giving up, like the time with friends or the Internet.”
In experiments to be published next month in The Journal of Consumer Research, scientists at Duke and the University of Wisconsin studied ways to help people make more realistic buying decisions.
In one group, undergraduate students were asked how often they would exercise in a two-week period. They estimated five times, and then indicated they would pay about $610 for a treadmill.
In a second group, students were asked how often they would exercise under ideal conditions, with no constraints on their time, motivation and physical ability. The answer: 10 times. Then they were asked how often they would really exercise. They scaled it back to fewer than four times. Rooted in reality, this group was willing to pay just $480 for a treadmill.
When the participants recorded their actual exercise over a two-week period, it totaled about three days. That shows that the simple act of distinguishing between an ideal setting and the real world helped those in the second group make more realistic exercise estimates.
“We##re not telling people to stop buying treadmills,” said Kurt Carlson, assistant professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. “The question is how to get the right people to buy them. Everyone else should recognize they don##t have the motivation, and take the money and use it on a personal trainer or something else that##s going to get them motivated.”