The Economics of Not Working Out

January 15, 2012

Proposition: Anyone that vows to go to the gym more but doesn’t shouldn’t complain about Congress not being able to pass bills that cut spending.

From Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

One in eight new members join their fitness club in January, and many gyms see a traffic surge of 30 to 50 percent in the first few weeks of the year. Stop by your local gym today, and the ellipticals will be flush with flush new faces. But next thing you know, it will be April, our gym cards will be mocking us from our wallets, and our tummies will have sprouted, on cue with the tree buds.

Here’s what economics can teach us about fitness and the fitness industry.


People are way too optimistic about their willpower to work out, Stefano Dellavigna and Ulrike Malmendier concluded in their famous paper “Paying Not to Go to the Gym.” In the study, members were offered a $10-per-visit package or a monthly contract worth $70. More chose the monthly contract and only went to the gym four times a month. As a result, they paid 70 percent more per visit than they would have under the plan they rejected. Why? Because people are too optimistic that they can become gym rats, which would make the monthly package “worth it.” Silly them.

You might call this behavior “laziness.” Economists prefer “hyperbolic discounting.” This is the theory that we pay more attention to our short-term well-being and “discount” rewards that might come further down the road. Think of a small reward in the distant future, like taking a nap three weeks from now. Doesn’t hold much appeal, does it? But when the small reward is imminent — Take a nap right now? Woo hoo! — it’s considerably more attractive. Given the choice between small/soon rewards versus larger/later benefits, we’ll take the former. Hyperbolic discounting helps to explain why Congress can’t pass deficit reduction, why drug addicts stay addicts, why debtors don’t pay off their bills, and why you keep telling yourself that the right day for exercise is always “tomorrow.”

An Unexpected Education – Update

July 21, 2011

Earlier this week, in Part 1 of what could be an ongoing series, I detailed the unexpected education I received courtesy of C-SPAN about the correlation between the tips that lap dancers receive and where they are in their menstruation cycle.  Who knew?

Now comes a story in The Atlantic Monthly, another non-crackpot source, detailing the linkage between penile size and economic growth.

That’s right, penis size. In a study published [July 18], the University of Helsinki’s Tatu Westling points out a surprising strong correlation between a country’s GDP growth rate and average penile length. As the chart above shows, countries that averaged smaller penis sizes grew at a faster rate than their larger counterparts between 1960 and 1985. Every centimeter increase in penis size accounted for a 5 to 7 percent reduction in economic growth. The study also showed that overall GDP was at its highest in countries with average-sized penises with GDP falling at the extremes of penis length.

Slow Economic Growth = Giant Manhood

So, if this is true, China, with its GDP growing at like 10% per year, is full of guys with exceptionally tiny Wangs (if this is not the Chinese word for “Johnson”, it should be).  As the Atlantic points out, “some fast-growing countries may be compensating for something. ”  There is apparently no discussion of the fact that more than half the world’s population lacks such equipment.

The study begs a question though.  What happens during recessions or depressions?  Does that average penis shrink?  Or is it the shrinkage of the penis that causes GDP to decline?  Which occurs first?  Perhaps Professor Westling can do another study.

What I read

March 28, 2010

Probably Enough to Keep Me Busy

My name is Mark and I am an addict.  My drug of choice is information, particularly on current events.

I started really reading in junior high, but it got out of hand in high school.  At first it was two newspapers a day (Chicago Tribune and the Arlington Herald).  Sports first, then the other stuff.  My reading an article about a rape trial got me “the talk” from my dad. I was in Student Congress in high school and there wasn’t a current topic that was off-limits, so preparing meant covering a wide landscape.  The guy behind the periodical desk at the library came to dislike me.  That experience introduced me to the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as a broader range of general and not so general interest magazines.  Foreign Policy, anyone?  It was a gateway drug.

I went into remission in college, then resumed consuming thereafter.  It’s now really out of hand with both internet’s accessibility and my not having a job.  But even when I worked, I still always had about 40 pages of articles I’d reformatted into two-column, 10-point font to carry with me.  Walking to a meeting, waiting for a lunch partner, lunching by myself, on the train, and in other places appropriate or not, my appetite for news could be described as insatiable.  In the last couple years, I’ve fallen in love with podcasting, so now I’ve got news in through my ears and eyes, often at the same time.  If you see me with my headphones, chances are good that I’m tuned into Fresh Air or something similar, rather than Green Day.

I don’t watch much TV; mostly sports and a few entertainment shows (Modern Family tops the list, Wednesdays at 9/8CT).  I only occasionally watch cable news, and that’s only because I like the way certain people write their material, not because it adds much to my knowledge or understanding of a topic.  Cable TV does all of us a disservice by conflating the ideas of “governing” and “politics” and treating both in the same way CNBC treats the stock market or ESPN treats the baseball season.  It’s not a game.  Policy-making, like history, happens over a long arc of time and does not change eight times within 24 hours. I couldn’t help but notice how the so-called conventional wisdom on President Obama turned 180 degrees in the moments following signing the health care bill (and publication of David Frum’s “Waterloo” analysis). One moment, he’s a political blunderer, the next a genius.  It was never either one and there wasn’t a switch magically flipped on Sunday.  While there are addition points made in this this NY Review of Books piece, it encapsulates my feelings on the topic pretty well.

I used to have a business relationship with CNN and conversations with their executives taught me much about how they think and their need to “feed the monster”.  Essentially, their argument was:  We’re on for 24 hours and have to have something to talk about, so we take small things, small differences, highlight them and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a run of a couple days out of a story.  If that happens, it’s that many fewer other little stories that we’ll have to report. It was akin to taking crap and throwing it against the wall to see what would stick, then talking about it until it fell off the wall.  It works great at first (e.g., the first Gulf War), but with the proliferation of channels, the hosts of these shows have to continually come up with unique things to be outraged about, lest they lose their gigs (think Beck and Olbermann; Hannity and Ed).  If there’s nothing to be outraged about, what’s the point of having them on the air?  So outraged they are.  And we lose the concept of rational discourse in the process.

But I digress.

So, I read.  Don’t tell my business colleagues, but reading about business bores me.

I occasionally get asked what I read.  Unlike someone who came to national prominence in the last couple years and was unprepared for that question, I have an answer.  It’s a long one.  I’m exhausted looking at it.  You’ll note that it doesn’t include Time, Newsweek or any of the other “general interest” magazines.  My sense has been that if they’re only going to publish weekly, their analysis had better be excellent because it comes so late; I find their websites generally uninteresting, too (too much celebrity coverage).  The last time I checked, I didn’t think it warranted the effort.

It’s a habit I can’t kick.  I read the occasional book, but while doing that, I’m thinking of the other current things I could be reading about, so it sort of sucks the pleasure out of it.  The only exception is when I get my hands on a good history book, since I can put myself in the historical context and read it as if it was a current event.  It’s more confusing to explain than to do.

So here’s the list.

Physical media:

Online – consistently (I pay for access to the WSJ.  I would pay for content at other providers, too.  The notion that this stuff all has to be free is flawed as far as I’m concerned):

Online – occasional


  • PTI
  • C-SPAN After Words (from Book TV)
  • Fresh Air
  • NPR’s It’s All Politics
  • NPR’s Planet Money
  • PBS NewsHour
  • Slate’s Culture Gabfest
  • Slate’s Hang Up and Listen
  • Slate’s Political Gabfest
  • Countdown
  • This American Life
  • On The Media
  • Today in the Past

No Politico, Talking Points Memo or Daily Beast.

If I’m missing something, let me know.  There’s always room on the browser and in the stack of papers for another view.

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