Why do people buy fitness items only to see them gather dust?
April 8, 2019 7:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm specifically focusing on treadmills, though I think the question likely applies to other devices. I'm wondering why people buy them, and why so many of them seem to end up gathering dust in garages or basements (though I don't have numbers on this.) Bonus points if you've got one gathering dust and can explain why...
posted by soulbarn to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, why do people buy gym memberships and never use them? Why do people buy guitars and noodle around for a few weeks and then never touch them again? Why do people buy $200 worth of cake decorating equipment and then make two cakes ever?

It's not like people buy them and think "I am so glad I bought this piece of equipment specifically to let it gather dust." They intend to use them, and then find that they don't REALLY want to use them all that much, so after a brief period they don't.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:32 AM on April 8, 2019 [33 favorites]

They're aspirational purchases - you buy the exercise equipment for the person you wish you were/hope to be, not for the person you are. And it's hardly limited to exercise equipment. Who among us doesn't have a sewing machine that we thought we would use to alter all our clothes, or an expensive and unused camera, or fancy tableware for parties we never throw. Motorcycles and skis and boats. "Important" books that sit on the shelf unread.
posted by mskyle at 7:34 AM on April 8, 2019 [53 favorites]

I don't think this is really a mystery? People buy them because they think they're going to use them, or they do actually use them for a period of time, but then stop. But a treadmill, unlike, say, a bread machine or a paraffin hand bath, can't be hidden in the back of a cupboard when you're not using it. They're heavy and hard to get rid of. You can't just chuck it in the back of the car to take to Goodwill on a Saturday while you're decluttering. So, they hang out, taking up space, but unused.

Reasons why you might stop using a treadmill include: hating being on the treadmill, changing fitness goals, injury, better weather outside, lack of time, lack of desire to exercise, illness, or the treadmill isn't working correctly but it is still tough to get rid of.
posted by anastasiav at 7:34 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yeah, this seems pretty straightforward. People have good intentions for getting healthier so they buy equipment and then buyer's remorse kicks in when it turns out they don't use it as much as they thought.This question really seems to be about why do people not stick to their workout plans.
posted by jeremias at 7:35 AM on April 8, 2019

Aspiration. I buy a treadmill because I really want to use it all the time and lose those last 15 pounds and fit back into the skinny pants. And I am 95% sure that the reason I don't get to the gym is because it's too far/my job schedule doesn't allow it/the equipment isn't right/the people are too judgy there/the monthly cost is too high/the shower afterward is weird, and all of those problems are solved when I have a machine right there in my home. And I don't have the motivation to work out all the time because I have no skin in the game, but you can be sure that once I have dropped $1000 on a treadmill I'll get my money's worth because I'd be a fool not to.

I stop running a treadmill because running on a treadmill (especially a cheap one in my basement), sucks. And I realize what I really need is a Peloton. I'd use that all. the. time.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:36 AM on April 8, 2019 [25 favorites]

Because it feels like buying the thing will automatically translate to using the thing, even though most of the time that's not how it works. But maybe this time!

I also call it "shopping for the person I wish I was, not the person I am". And the thing is, sometimes it works out great! For every hundred people who bought that treadmill, there's a few who found out they actually will use it frequently and enthusiastically because their inability to start/maintain a running habit was an environmental problem rather than a dislike or discipline problem. We all experience that reinforcement sometimes - when that Instant Pot actually does revolutionize your meal prep or you end up riding that bike even more than you imagined when you bought it - but sometimes we roll the dice and end up with more shit in the garage.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:37 AM on April 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

I think part of the reason people buy these things is partly the reason they abandon them. I know I tend to buy big things like exercise equipment in the hopes that the purchase price and large-scale size of the equipment itself will inspire/shame me into using it. If I have a treadmill and a rack of weights in my basement, I feel (I hope, more truthfully) that it'll be a reminder to exercise, and a bit of a pressure in the expense and amount of space it takes up.

Abandoning it is sort of the flip side of that. I've bought the big purchase, so I'll always have it there, so why should I have to do anything with it today? It'll be there tomorrow, right! And for now, it's a great place to store clothes and cats.
posted by xingcat at 7:41 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a treadmill gathering dust. Why.. cause I'm lazy.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:46 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Great intentions, weak follow through. Our reach exceeds our grasp. We spread ourselves too thin. Biting off more than we can chew. We have all these phrases and more, because this stuff is fairly common in the human condition.
Count me as another who is mystified that some would find this mysterious. Perhaps this is less common in some cultures?
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:47 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

We bought a treadmill so that we would have an air-conditioned option for walking/exercise, that wasn't at a gym. (We did use it for a while, actually, and it served that purpose!)

We have the treadmill in storage for a number of reasons - we have since moved twice, and do not have a good space in the new house.
Although the treadmill said it was easy to fold up and move out of the way, it wasn't!
Putting the treadmill on hardwood floors in a room with other items actually made the whole room shake, so we didn't have an ideal space for it even when we bought it!

Soon, we will have to make a decision on what to do with it - it's being stored at my grandmother's house, which we are going to clean out and sell.
posted by needlegrrl at 7:47 AM on April 8, 2019

This is something I run into with the sports club I run. We have beginner-grade equipment for members to use. We go to great lengths to say to people "don't buy your own kit - use what we have at the club for six months, then make a decision based on how often you come to sessions".

75% of people still go out and buy a set of kit a couple of weeks into their membership. We have a thriving trade in barely-used equipment as a result.
posted by pipeski at 7:48 AM on April 8, 2019

I have a treadmill in my basement that is not only gathering dust but it currently has an empty TV box on top of it. That's ironic or something, probably.

The reason I bought it and no longer use it is because I am hopeful but also lazy.
posted by bondcliff at 7:53 AM on April 8, 2019

People have to figure out what works for them to get exercise. Apparently "I'll do it at my house" turns out not to work for a lot of people and you have to spend the money to figure that out.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:04 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

The things I buy are more about who I want to be than who I am.
posted by InkaLomax at 8:13 AM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I know several gay men of a certain era who bought a Soloflex because of it's 80s/90s homoerotic advertising. No seriously, the Scott Madsen ads intentionally looked like gay porn. So in addition to the basic aspirational quality of exercise equipment you also have specifically lust both for Madsen and for wanting to look like Madsen. Also the novelty of homoerotic advertising in the mainstream, a rarity back then.
posted by Nelson at 8:14 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

One thing I haven't seen mentioned. Sometimes home exercise equipment is not very well made and can be frustrating to use. It's often just not as good as the stuff that gyms have. I bought a very cheap treadmill once, and it turned out it was cheap for a reason. And a trainer I worked with had an elliptical that was amazing because it adjusted for height - when I looked up the cost, it was way too high for what I would buy to have at home.

But in general, I agree that people have good intentions that they don't always follow through on. Another example of that is buying lots of vegetables, only to let them rot in the fridge. (A Swiss friend considered that a specifically American problem though.)
posted by FencingGal at 8:16 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's the only mystery. People know that feeling good will make their whole lives better. They know that exercise is the most certain path to that. They have a little treasure, and they want that feeling enough to trade their treasure. Yet, they are not thinking about how they will feel in those moments in the future, they don't know how to make this needed thing part of their lives -- and the rest of the world doesn't really allow us to make this time unless we fight for it.

And we need those moments that we spend on other things that make us happy. We need to feel pleasure every day, either in sensation or anticipation. That need is grossly, constantly, undervalued, and the things that make us happy are constantly undervalued. We undervalue it in others, and judge them for doing those things that make life bearable. We undervalue it in ourselves, and condemn ourselves for what we see as weakness.

So, when we think of what a person needs to live, we'll allow them beans and four walls, but not ice cream and decoration. And when we think of what we need to do to be happy, we'll promise an hour a day for walking while staying in one place, but we don't understand that the most alive part of us will probably insist on at least reading an exciting story, or connecting with other people in whatever way we can.
posted by amtho at 8:16 AM on April 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

A lot of exercise equipment is advertised in misleading ways, whether that's about ease of use, durability, or potential results. People often buy things that don't really work as expected and then don't use them.

I will say that my family had an old-fashioned exercise bike that gathered dust almost all the time - but we had three situations where it was needed and used intensely for months at a stretch. My dad has a treadmill that he uses rarely because he mostly prefers outdoor exercise. It gathers dust perhaps 90% of the time. If you have the space, it can be convenient to have exercise equipment available over the long term, even if you don't use it on a regular basis.
posted by Frowner at 8:20 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

One thing I haven't seen mentioned. Sometimes home exercise equipment is not very well made and can be frustrating to use. It's often just not as good as the stuff that gyms have. I bought a very cheap treadmill once, and it turned out it was cheap for a reason. And a trainer I worked with had an elliptical that was amazing because it adjusted for height - when I looked up the cost, it was way too high for what I would buy to have at home.

I came here to say this. Frequently, the big brands used in professional gyms also sell a version of their equipment for home use. These machines are not nearly as sturdy. They wobble, they creak, and they just feel a lot less smooth, which makes you notice the machine itself a lot more, rather than paying attention to how you feel and how your workout is going. Several years ago I bought an elliptical and had this experience. I'd use the one at the gym, no problem, but I didn't like the one I had at home and got rid of it pretty quickly. The pro-grade stuff--which is sturdy for a reason, since people are using those machines all day every day--is really fucking expensive.
posted by duffell at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's not only jocks that do this. Nerds do it too. Umberto Eco in 1977:
Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labour he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work ... There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.
posted by caek at 8:27 AM on April 8, 2019 [28 favorites]

I have another angle: treadmills suck.

Even if you become a runner on the treadmill, soon spring comes and you discover that running outside is more fun -- there is fresh air, dogs, other people to look at -- so for at least a few months your treadmill becomes decorative.

But +1 to "because they're hard to stash away" - I have some exercise bands / sliders / kettle bells at home, but they fit nicely in a storage cube.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:28 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can take it from the other end if you like. I work for a fitness-centred organization that, unlike a gym membership where the economics are based on people not showing up, really depends on people showing up.

We have a lot of ways that we help them do that - we set goals, we monitor goals, we have a lot of conversations in particular ways that over time have proven to help. We invest in our students and we get that part of what we do is help them get into class.

So from that position of expertise - every time someone breaks a commitment - doesn't show up on Wednesday, and then the next week doesn't show up twice, etc. - we can see the chain weaken. Part of that is just breaking a pattern that's helped them show up. Part of that is the mental energy to come in and know that their class is going to be a bit harder - they missed something, they've stiffened up, their progress is just a tiny little bit stalled - than it was when they were coming like clock work. And the longer that goes, the harder it gets and the more frustrating it is to not be as fit/flexible/strong as you were the week before. (Everyone has ups and downs, but especially as you get older, it's kind of use it or lose it.)

A piece of equipment doesn't intervene in that cycle downwards (although there are a few where you can be a part of an online system that helps.) So you don't have anything external to get you over the increasingly long gaps in your training.

And when we think of what we need to do to be happy, we'll promise an hour a day for walking while staying in one place, but we don't understand that the most alive part of us will probably insist on at least reading an exciting story, or connecting with other people in whatever way we can.

I don't love treadmills although I use them, but even when I am training alone, I guess for me (and I'm a nerdy reader!)...actually being fit, using my body, etc., does provide me personally with this kind of joy so people do vary. Even so, I will not work out, the same way I won't see my friends or get to the book I've been meaning to read. So I'm not sure lack of joy is the only reason.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:33 AM on April 8, 2019

Not sure if this has been mentioned yet but: Marketing works. We are impressionable. We need to be able to tell each other stories that contain instructions about what we should do. We hear these stories about how much we NEED these things and we believe it because that's how we're wired. If everyone's own personal instincts and common sense could override cultural stories better then the world would be a much different place.
posted by bleep at 9:01 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just to reinforce the point about fitness equipment not being as high quality as you think it's going to be. I had an exercise bike for many years that functioned essentially as a clothes hanger because it was too rickety and unstable to use as an actual exercise bike, even though I tried really hard!
posted by unicorn chaser at 9:07 AM on April 8, 2019

We have a treadmill that we purchased used from someone who never even got on it. We lugged it home with much trouble to ourselves, set it up, and there it sits in front of the TV, clunky and hard on the eye. The couch gets far more use. Reasons I never use it: I like gym-grade equipment better and the AC is better in gyms too. I don't really like gyms themselves. If I were rich and could set up my own home gym with fabulous equipment I'd happily skip the gym. As it is, the equipment for home use that I can afford feels awkward, cheap and uncomfortable. This treadmill is no exception. Mr. Hubris doesn't like gyms and wanted to buy it for his aspirational fitness goals. Occasionally he uses it. Mostly not.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2019

Another aspect of the question, of why the exercise equipment continues to gather dust after the first 6-24 months, is the action of selling it mean that the aspirational purchase is not only a temporary failure, but it will become a permanent failure. I.E. if I have a treadmill, I can always start using it tomorrow ... or next month... or maybe in 6 months when I get that work thing settled. Then, yes then, I can start using it. Once it's sold, that aspiration is gone.

Furthermore, if you have a treadmill that you might use, it has value. If one sells a treadmill for a loss that they didn't use, or didn't use "enough", it's at the act of selling that the loss is psychologically realized.

I can say that at the time we had a treadmill (we even moved houses with it when it hadn't been used in well over a year, if not three) it was to keep the potential of the treadmill, and not wanting to realize the loss.
posted by nobeagle at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

I skimmed and didn't see this answer, but when I had an exercise bike gathering dust in my home, I kind of chock that up to the fact that it was at home and I could come up with about a million other things I wanted to do at home than exercise on the bike. Now when I go to the gym there is nothing else to do but be at the gym so I get a workout in. I would not be surprised if that was a common reason for this phenomenon. There is, at least for me, a huge difference in effort between getting on the bike and actually driving somewhere else to get on the bike, and I think it's a psychological thing about homes = rest or something like that. Just my two cents.
posted by possibilityleft at 9:32 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bought a set of TRX-type straps for home use because I was using them at the gym with my trainer and wanted to be able to do some of the exercises at home. I never got comfortable using them without supervision and I never really had a good place to use them so they're in a bag in the basement waiting to be found again. They were pretty cheap so I don't feel too bad about not using them. Not sure if that means if I had bought real TRX bands would the added cost have guilted me into using them more.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:53 AM on April 8, 2019

There's some evidence that the very act of announcing your plans makes you less likely to accomplish them:
Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.
If you buy this research, and if you think of buying a huge appliance as publicly announcing your plans, the decision is a catch 22. If you don't buy the treadmill then you'll never use it. If you do buy the treadmill then the purchase itself makes you less likely to use it. The solution is to have a friend secretly install a treadmill in your home and never tell you.
posted by caek at 11:21 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Bonus points if you've got one gathering dust and can explain why...

For the bonus round, I just last week a dumped an exercise bike that had been sitting in my bedroom unused for . . . . . I honestly don't remember, over a decade. At least.

Why did I buy it?

Well, trying to lose weight, general health and wellness. At the time I got it (admittedly, cheap from a thrift store) all the commonly-found exercise advice was "Cardiovascular!! Get that heart pumping at X rate for Y minutes Z times a week!" (Newer research/data has suggested that that may not be the bestest exercise plan, but whatever.) I'm not a runner/jogger, I live in a place with cold & snow a significant portion of the year, I have an erratic work schedule so in the days before 24-hr gyms I could never set a regular schedule to go to a gym when it was open. A stationary bike that I could ride whenever I wanted made perfect sense. I did go through spurts of using it like 2 or 3 times a week for a couple of months at a stretch.

Why did I stop riding it?

Because it was fucking boring. I tried reading while biking, watching movies/TV while biking, listening to music while biking. Nope. Still fucking boring.

Also, in further questing/experimentation for general health and weight loss and maybe to address specific problems (like fucking up my back) I discovered that I would regularly do walks in the neighborhood, and yoga, and calisthenics, and lifting weights, and bodyweight workouts. I have no real idea why some exercise methods stuck with me and others didn't, but that's what happened.

Why didn't I get rid of it earlier?

Inertia. The thing was friggin' heavy, carting it downstairs never seemed appealing, and it didn't seem worth the bother of trying to sell it on Craigslist or wherever.

Plus it was a convenient place to throw clothes.

Why did I finally decide to get rid of it?

I dunno - I had some time to spare and was doing a little pre-spring spring cleaning and thought, "Y'know, this thing is impossible to keep clean and it's huge and clunky and I never use it." Since I had some spare money at the moment, I got a thing from Ikea that would serve the same purpose (place to stash some clothes and shoes) while taking up less space and carted the bike down to the dumpster in a fit of energy. (Next to the dumpster, actually, and I think someone snagged it because it wasn't there a couple of days later even though the dumpster was still full, so "curbside recycling" for the win, I guess.)
posted by soundguy99 at 11:27 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

You mean I paid all that money for this thing and I have to waste time using it to lose weight?

(also, exercising to lose weight isn't really a thing unless you're running a food plan too.)
posted by scruss at 12:29 PM on April 8, 2019

I don't have a treadmill gathering dust but I do have a piano gathering dust. Hobbies change. We'd be boring people if we wanted to do the same things forever.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:27 PM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

People buy the things (vs. going to the gym and using theirs) because it seems like removing an obstacle to their goal. They'd work out more, but going to the gym is just so inconvenient.

Turns out, a lot of the time it wasn't an obstacle, it was an excuse. And if an excuse was going to stop you, there will be others to take it's place once you remove it.
posted by ctmf at 3:56 PM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Here's another angle on it:

The people I know who are "fit" are people who build activity into their lives. Their hobbies are active, they play sports, they have friends at the climbing gym, they bike to work, hitting the gym before work is part of their daily routine, etc etc. They don't buy treadmills because they don't need them.

The aspirational treadmill buyer doesn't have an active lifestyle. They want to get more exercise but don't know where to start because activity is not currently built into their life. They buy a treadmill because it seems like the easiest way to get the needed exercise without a drastic lifestyle change -- "I'll get my exercise while watching TV in my basement!" But it turns out it's difficult to change your lifestyle without making a substantial lifestyle change. When you're at home after a long day at work it's tough to pick "watch TV while running on the treadmill" over "watch TV while sitting on my awesome couch".
posted by no regrets, coyote at 4:28 PM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bought a stationary cycle, hoping to get consistent exercise, but my knee didn't do well with it. Gathered dust and gave it away.

I bought an elliptical for the same reason. I hated using it, it gathered dust and I gave it away.

Thankfully, I've found swimming and have been consistently swimming 5X a week for 2 years at the Y. Sadly, I can't just order a pool for my apartment. The one exercise that stuck. Sigh.
posted by greermahoney at 8:00 PM on April 8, 2019

Based on my experience, most home treadmills function better as a clothing rack than as exercise equipment.

I suspect that home rowing machines are more likely to be used as intended. I love my Stamina boat—hoping to someday move up to one of those fancy-pants water models.
posted by she's not there at 11:34 PM on April 8, 2019

The people I know who are "fit" are people who build activity into their lives. Their hobbies are active, they play sports, they have friends at the climbing gym, they bike to work, hitting the gym before work is part of their daily routine, etc etc. They don't buy treadmills because they don't need them.

I'm a pretty serious cyclist and one rainy winter I had had enough of getting wet and cold so went down to REI and bought an indoor trainer. I had this vision of just hanging out watching movies in my house putting some miles in, not having to clean soggy cycling clothes every single day.

I lasted half an episode of Law & Order on it and put it back in the box almost immediately. I'd rather get wet.

I can kinda sorta understand why people are into gyms, but exercising at home indoors... no thanks. Besides all the reasons mentioned it's just dreadfully boring.
posted by bradbane at 11:15 AM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't take that bet. They're just elephants in the room that don't hang clothes very well.

Ask the guys that pack and move people's household goods when they move. They call all those machines "coatracks".
posted by ctmf at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2019

Which is why you should buy a barbell and squat stands. You're not going to use that either, but it makes a very good clothes hanging bar.

I use mine, but I admit sometimes I have to clear the hangers from it because that's also the space where I fold and hang laundry.
posted by ctmf at 12:22 PM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

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