A Mood Boost and Some Competition Offer Incentive to Exercise More

Happy Woman

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most people realize that exercise is necessary for health and longevity. The challenge that prevents many from implementing a regular fitness regimen is lack of or inconsistent motivation
  • Competitiveness tends to improve motivation and fitness gains. People who were primed for competition ended up participating in 90 percent more exercise classes than those who weren’t
  • Other studies have shown that part of what keeps people motivated is teaming up with someone of greater ability — someone who can motivate you to do more rather than give you excuses to slack off

By Dr. Mercola

Those who succeed at maintaining good health into old age typically have one thing in common: They've made regular exercise a part of their day-to-day lifestyle.

Most people realize that exercise is necessary for health and longevity. The challenge that prevents many from implementing a regular fitness regimen is lack of or inconsistent motivation. It takes time to build a new habit, and you need to somehow stay the course. Staying motivated is part of that equation.

Researchers now believe they may have discovered a potent way to boost your motivation to exercise.

Exercise Boosts Serotonin, Norepinephrine and Your Body's Stress Response

Exercise has undeniable positive effects on your mood, with anxiety reduction key among them.This is what keeps many devoted exercisers coming back for more. 

A study by Princeton University researchers revealed that exercising creates new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce blissful feelings and a natural state of calm.1

The Benefits of Competitiveness

Are you a competitive person? If so, tapping into that competitive spirit may be the key you've been looking for if you're still struggling to get to the gym on a regular basis.

According to researchers, people who were primed for competition ended up participating in 90 percent more exercise classes than those who weren't. As reported by Time magazine:2

"Friendly social support makes you work out less often, while cutthroat competition is the key to motivating yourself to get to the gym."

Social Support Versus Competition

Nearly 800 University of Pennsylvania students participated in this study.3 Researchers put them through an 11-week-long exercise program consisting of spinning, yoga, Pilates and strength training classes.

Participants either worked out alone, or exercised as part of a team that was either socially supportive or competitive. In the competitive team group, participants were assigned five random buddies. Each person could track the others' progress, but had no social interactions.

In the supportive team group, in addition to tracking each other's progress, participants could also chat and/or meet up at classes to support and encourage each other.

Those who worked out alone were also divided into two groups, where some could compare their own progress to that of other exercisers, while the others had no access to progress information. Winners were determined by the number of classes attended.

Surprisingly, teaming up with others was not the determining factor when it came to winning. It was the level of competitiveness that predicted how many classes an individual or team would attend. Those in the competitive groups participated in 90 percent more classes than the others.

Why Competitiveness Is a Greater Motivator Than Social Support

As noted in the featured article:4

"Group dynamics have a lot of power over exercise behavior … In the competitive group, all eyes were on the most active participants; they were the goalposts to beat.

'As people were influenced by their neighbors to exercise more, it created a social ratchet, where everyone increased everyone else's activity levels,' [senior author Damon Centola, [Ph.D.] associate professor of communication and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania] says.

But in the we're-all-in-this-together group, those that dragged their feet drew the most attention. 'The people who were participating less would actually draw down energy levels and give others a reason or excuse to also participate less,' Centola says."

An easy way to implement this kind of competition would be to create an online forum or group where you and your friends can track each other's exercise performance, regardless of whether you're actually working out together.

All of that said, motivation can be tricky, and what works for some, or even most people, may not work for everyone. If the idea of competing makes you cringe, you may be heartened by the findings of these other studies.  

In General, Fitness Partners Increase Your Success

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen evaluated the level of success you might experience by having a supportive exercise buddy.5 This was the first study to also investigate the specific qualities you want to look for in a workout partner.

Half of the participants were asked to find a fitness partner while the other half were asked to continue their usual solo routine. Those who teamed up with a partner did indeed exercise more than those who exercised alone.

The lead author of this study has also been involved in previous studies of a similar nature. In each she found that the social support participants received from their fitness partners was in large part responsible for the exercise gains made.6,7

A third study8 published in Applied Psychology looked at data from over 1,000 people. They too found that those who planned their activities with a partner had better results than those who relied on their own willpower to increase their activity level.

The Kohler Effect

Working with one or more partners generally has a motivating effect. However, as demonstrated in the University of Pennsylvania study, this strategy can backfire. Psychologists have found that part of what keeps people motivated is teaming up with someone of greater ability.

In other words, someone who can motivate you to do more rather than give you excuses to slack off will keep you going.

The motivating effect that occurs when you compete against others and exhibit greater capability as a result is called the Kohler effect, named after Otto Kohler, a German industrial psychologist.9 This motivational gain is more distinct during tasks when the outcome of the task is dependent upon the less capable individual.

This effect was demonstrated in a study from Kansas State University, in which researchers used health video games and virtual partnerships to improve the physical performance of their participants.10,11 Fifty-eight female college students were split into three groups. Each student rated their fitness as "average." Their performance on a bike was evaluated for time, both alone and with a partner.

On average, the women rode for a little over 10 minutes by themselves. When teamed with a partner their time nearly doubled, increasing to just over 19 minutes. However, when told the performance of their team would depend upon the time of whoever stopped first, the average time rose even further, to just under 22 minutes.

The unique part of the experiment was that the virtual partner, who the participant met in a video conference, was on a video loop and was never going to be the first to stop the bike. A similar study, funded by Health Games Research, was performed at Michigan State University.12 Here, participants' performance improved by 24 percent when they exercised with a virtual partner of greater capability.

How to Select a Suitable Workout Buddy

In the video above, a senior editor at The Atlantic discusses finding a workout partner with the founder of WellSquad,13 a mobile app that pairs you with people who have similar fitness goals and live in your geographical location. (It uses an algorithm similar to those used by dating sites. Finding a workout buddy is free but working with their personal trainers, instructors and dietitians comes with a price tag.)

Using information from studies evaluating physical activity when engaged with a partner, researchers have identified several characteristics that successful partners bring to your relationship.14 Partners who provide emotional support tend to encourage higher levels of exercise than those who offer instructional support only.

They also discovered that finding a partner who encourages you through your program is more important than finding a partner who exercises along with you. This dramatically increases the potential population of exercise partners, including those who may not live in the same state.

As a general rule, partners who are interested in your progress are able to engage in a relationship with you, and are willing to spend time either exercising with you or conversing with you about your program, make for excellent workout partners. In addition to the WellSquad app, other places where you can find a workout buddy include:

  • Your local gym, recreation center or YMCA. Either approach people with whom you have developed a relationship and who you think will be emotionally supportive, or ask the fitness trainers at the gym whom they might recommend.
  • MeetUp.com15 lists a number of different special interest groups where you might find a suitable buddy, such as fitness, hiking and a variety of sports.
  • ZogSports.com16 is a site that links young professionals for teams, social events, classes and clinics. If you fit the demographic it's a good place to find a workout buddy.
  • Family, friends and work colleagues.

Teaming up with a workout buddy is one way to improve your odds of success, especially if you're willing to add a bit of friendly competition into the mix. For even more motivational tips and tricks, see my previous article, "How to Make Exercise a Lifelong Habit."

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