Yes, the Cut is correct to make fun of this morning’s New York Times story on so-called “fitness concierges” who help clients coordinate and stick to their workout routines. These concierges, the Times reports, “can turn up at 5 a.m. with coffee and an organic banana to rouse clients and stand sentry while they get dressed ($100), provide car service ($25, plus the cost of the ride), arrange for freshly laundered clothes to be waiting at the Barry’s Bootcamp studio ($25), or courier over a favorite green juice ($25).” As with many New York stories, the key takeaway here seems to be that some people have too much money to know what to do with it. But buried under the ridiculousness is a kernel of an important point about diet and exercise, and it has to do with something researchers call “commitment devices.”
Commitment devices, as Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt of Freakonimcs fame explained in the Times in 2007, are “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” It’s a broad category. If you’ve never been able to bring yourself to read Ulysses, for example, joining a book group where it’s the next title to be discussed would be a commitment device (offering to host said book group, making it harder to weasel out, would be a stronger commitment device).
It’s easy to see why commitment devices could work in a fitness and exercise context, where best-laid plans are easily derailed by missed gym visits and cookies that materialize out of seemingly nowhere at work. If you’re in a weight-loss group that meets regularly to do weigh-ins and talk about the challenges you’re facing, or if you bet a friend $25 you can maintain your current weight over the holiday season, the stakes have been raised a bit: Not only will you fail to reach your fitness goals if you miss the gym or gorge on surprise cookies, but you’ll have to tell other members of the group about your disappointment, or you’ll lose $25. (The best example of putting this mechanism into action is probably StickK, a website that uses “commitment contracts” — cold, hard cash on the table optional — to help users reach their goals; if you click over there you’ll see that a lot of people are, unsurprisingly, using the site for exercise or weight-loss purposes.)
Hiring a “fitness concierge,” if you want to take an extremely charitable view of this story, is a form of a commitment device. If you know someone’s going to be sending a car to take you to the gym or showing up at 5 a.m. to wake you up to go for a run, you’re a lot more likely to stick to your exercise routine. Does it still seem like a pretty insane waste of money, not to mention an embarrassing form of coddling? Totally! But for those of us who won’t be hiring someone to bring us our morning juice anytime soon, the lesson here is that when you embark on a difficult behavioral objective involving alone, without some sort of commitment device — even just a few buddies with a similar goal — you face way more of an uphill battle.