Danish gym offers free membership -- unless you don't show up

Equinox Fitness, a chain of 16 gyms in Denmark owned by an Icelandic holding company, has introduced a novel promotion. You must pay an upfront fee and deposit of about $175 to join the gym, but from then on, if you show up at the gym at least once a week, your monthly membership is free. Each week you fail to drop in and workout or even just hang out in the solarium, you get charged the normal monthly membership fee.
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Equinox Fitness, a chain of 16 gyms in Denmark owned by an Icelandic holding company, has introduced a novel promotion. You must pay an upfront fee and deposit of about $175 to join the gym, but from then on, if you show up at the gym at least once a week, your monthly membership is free. Each week you fail to drop in and workout or even just hang out in the solarium, you get charged the normal monthly membership fee (around $85).

Equinox is running the promotion both as a clever marketing campaign (some rival Danish gyms call it a stunt) and as a way to encourage participation in fitness and get Denmark healthy. Equinox marketing manager Kristian Brandt claimed the program is an attempt for the gym to promote social responsibility. The gym also promotes programs for children's fitness and provides day care to help working parents get a workout and fight obesity.

Though some may say it just sounds like some silly, socialist Euro fluff, economists and fitness trade organizations in the United States think it's a brilliant idea.

"I really think it can work. People hate giving up their money and are willing to work hard to make sure it doesn't happen," said Ian Ayers, a professor of law and business at Yale and author of the book "Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart."

In fact, Ayers said he believes so strongly in what he calls the economics of incentives or commitment that he, along with Yale professor of economics Dean Karlan and Yale School of Management professor and founder of Honest Tea, Barry Nalebuff, founded a company called Stikk (www.stikk.com, currently in beta version), which helps people stick to their goals -- be that going to a gym three days a week, losing weight or quitting smoking -- by drafting up a contract. Each person decides the level of commitment and the stakes. Stikk can simply send emails to friends and relatives or they can put money at risk. They can even choose who receives the money. Some pick a charity, noted Ayers, while others work to prevent their money from going to an unfavorable organization, or "anti-charity."

With the fitness industry, the idea of getting more people active by removing financial constraints has also picked up steam. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) already has implemented programs that get people in the gym by removing financial barriers. This past summer it introduced its Teen Fitness Connection, which gave teens free "matinee hours" in the middle of the day at 85 participating IHRSA member clubs. And 800 health clubs nationwide opened their doors for free May 12-18 for IHRSA's fifth annual Get Active America! Campaign.

"People respond well to the word 'free.' There are no strings attached and it gives them the incentive without financial obligation," said Kara Thompson, public relations assistant for IHRSA.

"Just about all of us have a problem with self-control," said Ayers. "Incentive or commitment-based economics appeal to the customer who has some awareness of their situation and wants to tie their hand to the mast like Ulysses sailing through the sirens."

SNEWS® View: So incentive-based gym memberships just may work. What's next, we wonder -- home treadmills that automatically charge your credit card if you don't hit a preset mileage target each week? Wait, that might be a good idea.

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