Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The January gym spike is real, but it drops off just a few weeks later, according to data from location and fitness apps.
“Beat the New Year’s resolution rush!” read a chirpy email that landed in my inbox as January approached. It was an invitation to join a local gym (first month free!), and it served as a reminder that it was that time again, when many of us vow this is the year we become better versions of ourselves. Indeed, fitness remains the top resolution every year among those who proclaim “new year, new me.”
In a survey conducted by NPR and The Marist Poll in November and December, 44 percent of 1,075 American adults said they were likely to make a New Year’s resolution. Among them, 13 percent set out to exercise more, making it the most common resolution. Related ambitions to lose weight and eat better ranked third and fourth, respectively. Together, they’re goals for almost a third of all resolution makers.
But such lofty ambitions are notoriously hard to keep. The cold, hard truth about how our determination peaks and wavers—and how many of us will inevitably fall off the wagon—is in the data.
One analysis from Strava, for example, estimates that Americans are most likely to give up on this resolution as early as mid-January. So to see how that might play out in 2019, CityLab looked at data from Google and a fitness trade association, as well as those collected from smartphones by Strava and Foursquare.
Unsurprisingly, our collective determination starts out strong. Google Trends shows that searches for topics related to exercise and weight loss spike right around January 1 each year.
This time of year is also when the fitness industry ramps up its advertising—playing up a sense of inadequacy—and reaps the benefits. In a 2017 survey of nearly 6,400 fitness clubs in the U.S., the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that 10.8 percent of all gym membership sales in 2016 took place in January, which is proportionally more than any other month that year.
But getting a gym membership is the easy part. How much do people then follow through? Gym owners know that, at least when it comes to money, the best customers are those who don’t show up. Membership fees average $50 per month, according to the trade association’s report, with some higher-end studios and boutique charging well over $150 a month.
To get a sense of how well Americans make use of their membership, we looked at 2018 data provided to us by Foursquare, which analyzed data from several apps and more than 10 million users who checked in at gyms or shared their locations. Using that data (and normalizing it against U.S. census data to remove demographic and geographic bias) the analysts compared weekly visits in the first quarter of the year to the full-year average.
Their analysis showed that weekly gym attendance begins as early as the second day of the new year, and by January 8, Americans were making nearly 4 percent more visits than on average. From there, attendance dips back toward the full-year average the following week, but generally remains steadily above it through mid-March.
Fitness gurus will tell you that the key to getting in shape is to form new habits, ones that involve moving more. So with over three-quarters of Americans owning a smartphone, the way fitness apps track our movement offers another glance how health goals are playing out.
Last year, more than 100 million activities were uploaded to Strava’s fitness app, which tracks outdoor and indoor activities like running, cycling, and yoga. To see how users’ activity levels change in the new year—and predict when people are most likely to give up on their resolution this year—Strava’s senior director of analytics and data Cathy Tanimura compared daily activity uploads in 2018 to the four-week rolling average of activities by day of week.
Comparing the number of activities for Monday, January 1, 2018, to the average uploads of the previous four Mondays, for example, reveals a large spike in activity on the very first day of the new year—for older adults. “They are significantly up about 55 percent for people ages 40 to 49, and 65 percent for people 50 to 59, and it makes sense as people have the day off,” says Tanimura. “Interestingly younger people are perhaps sleeping off their New Year’s Eve festivities.”
In the following days, Strava data show average and lower-than-average activity levels, which Tanimura says is likely when users are still establishing new habits. Overall, activity was up by 34 percent on January 1 of last year. For some groups, it was up much as 50 percent on some days throughout the month. “There is quite a bit of running in that New Year activity,” Tanimura says.
So when do people start abandoning their resolutions? Strava calculates it to be the third Thursday of January, or the 17th of this year. That’s the first day in 2018 (after giving users a window of time to establish new habits) that the analysts saw activities dip below that four-week average. While the day that people start on their resolution varies—Tanimura says that, in some years, activity spikes before January 1—that drop-off in the third week is more common, which the company largely attributes to a loss of motivation.
Similarly, analysts at Foursquare identify a “Fall Off the Wagon Day” each year among gym-goers by comparing gym and fast food activity. By Foursquare’s definition, that day is when an uptick in weekly visits to fast food restaurants meets a drop in weekly visits to the gym. In 2017, that fell on the second Thursday of February, and last year, people were itching for that fast-food fix by the second Friday of that month. Between January 1 and this day in 2018, visits to fast food joints were down 4.6 percent, according to Foursquare’s analysis, while gym attendance grew by 6 percent. Based on the trend, analyst expects this year’s “Fall Off the Wagon Day” to fall on February 9, the second Saturday of the month and just 40 days into the new year.
Of course, that’s not everyone’s story. According to Strava’s 2018 Year in Sport report, there are ways to stay on course: 94 percent of users who set goals remain active nine months later, for example. As humans are social creatures, Strava’s data show that when we exercise in groups, we tend to run or bike 21 percent farther and work out 10 percent longer. But if neither running nor biking is your thing, there’s still good news. Strava’s year-end analysis finds that users are three times more likely to get more activity if they incorporate indoor activities like yoga.
New Year’s resolutions have always been a tricky thing, and not entirely through any fault of our own, despite the popular thinking around willpower. January is arguably one of the hardest months to make such a commitment. Days are short and temperatures can be frigid. Evolutionarily speaking, that means our natural instinct is to stay in, eat more—and make excuses for hitting the treadmill tomorrow.