While it can be tempting to go solo, researchers from Michigan State University have found that an exercise partner—especially one who is a little more fit than you—can boost motivation and performance.
Let’s face it—the hardest part of exercise is often finding the motivation to get started and keep going. In fact, lack of motivation is one of the most common barriers to achieving the right amount and intensity of exercise. While fitness goals—such as weight loss or an upcoming race—can be motivating enough for some people, nothing is more tangible than the friend running alongside you.
To study the impact of exercise partners, researchers divided 58 women into three groups. The women in the first group rode stationary bikes alone; those in the second group rode the bikes alongside a “virtual partner” (who was visible via a videoconference screen); and the women in the third group rode the bike alongside a virtual partner, but this time they worked as a team, and the performance of the team was determined by the weakest link (i.e. the one who stopped exercising first).
At the beginning of the study, the women who were assigned virtual partners “met” their partners via a pre-recorded video chat and they were told that their partner’s performance was moderately better than their own. They were told that their partner would be riding at the same time, on a similar bike, in another lab. During the exercise session, the women could track their partner’s progress on a “live feed”, which was actually a recording.
The women rode the bikes for as long as they felt comfortable riding and then the researchers measured how hard they had worked. After exercising, the women rated their intention to exercise again, how well they felt they had done, and how tired they felt.
The results—exercising with a partner improved performance and exercising as part of a team improved it even more. The women who exercised as part of a team cycled, on average, for 22 minutes; those who exercised with a partner cycled, on average, 20 minutes; and those who exercised alone cycled, on average, 11 minutes. In other words, women who exercised as part of a team exercised twice as long as those who were flying solo. What’s more—the women who exercised alone rated their intent to exercise (i.e. motivation) much lower, whereas both groups who exercised with virtual partners reported no decline in exercise motivation.
The researchers concluded that an exercise partner—even a virtual one—can boost motivation and performance. So, if your fitness routine needs a boost, consider finding a workout buddy. For the best results, look for someone who is slightly more fit than you are. If you can’t find a buddy, consider finding a virtual partner through an app like Nexercise.
Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL, et al. Aerobic Exercise Is Promoted when Individual Performance Affects the Group: A Test of the Kohler Motivation Gain Effect. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2012; 44(2): 151-159.