What would it take to get you to regularly exercise longer than you do now? New research suggests that you might just need a virtual buddy who you think is stronger than you.
A small study of female college students suggests that competing against a teammate or virtual partner helps people ramp up their exercise more effectively than if they worked out alone. The study also found that even though participants who were paired with a strong workout partner exercised much longer, they didn't feel any more tired after the fitness bout than did people who exercised alone for a shorter period of time.
"When the goal is to exercise longer, a partner who is a little better than you are can make a big difference," said study author Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University. "It gives you a goal, and may even inspire you to raise your goals."
The study was published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
How the study was done
Irwin wanted to know how to motivate people to push a little harder during their workouts. Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week with no fewer than 10 minutes a segment, many people aren't meeting that goal, he said.
"Even those who are exercising long enough often fail to reach the recommended level of moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk," Irwin explained. And to be involved in vigorous exercise, he explained, people have to reach and sustain a level of exertion at which it's difficult to have a conversation while working out.
Irwin wanted to see what it would take to help study participants get to the next level. The researchers recruited 58 female students at Michigan State University who were assessed for their physical fitness and regular physical activities. Participants exercised on a stationary bike for six 60-minute sessions over four weeks, creating baseline data.
Then the participants returned to the lab for more exercise sessions, but were simply told they were working out with a partner in another lab whom they could see on a video screen. (In reality, the monitor showed just a looping video, rather than a live feed of the other woman).
The participants were all told that their virtual partners had ridden their bikes 40% longer in the initial sessions than they actually had. Perhaps inspired to do as well as their virtual partners, the women then doubled their bike times as compared to their average baseline sessions.
The researchers then told the participants that they were working with their partner to achieve a combined team score, which would be solely based on the time of the person who stopped cycling first. Each participant was told that their partner had managed to cycle longer in the previous session.
After several sessions, participants who believed they were working as a team exercised almost 160% longer than those working with a partner, and 200% longer than those who exercised alone.
Although this study involved only women, Irwin said other research he and his colleagues have done involved both genders.
What the study showed
They found that if you pair a man with a woman who is more fit than he is, the man will be exceptionally motivated. Pairing a man with another man who is more fit also increases the less-athletic man's motivation to succeed, Irwin said.
What if your exercise partner -- real or virtual -- happens to be less vigorous than you are? Although that wasn't the focus of this study, Irwin said other research has shown that "you'd tend to be less motivated and would try less hard than if you were exercising by yourself."
Irwin explained that if an exerciser or teammate works at a level that is approximately 40% better than his or her partner, the motivation for the less fit partner to exercise aggressively is optimal. "At that level of difference, reaching the same level is both difficult and achievable," he said. "That's the sweet spot."
Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, in San Diego, said the results of the study are consistent with other behaviour-modification research and applies to more than athletics.
"Just as with eating habits, if you're in the company of individuals who make prudent choices, you will make better choices yourself," Bryant said. "To me, the real nice message here is that hanging out with people who model positive behaviour -- in this case virtually -- probably will have a positive effect on what you do as an individual."
But Bryant warned that pairing yourself with someone whose athletic prowess greatly exceeds your capacity could cause problems. "It would be demotivating, and you could over-train," he said.
The bottom line? Irwin advises people to find someone who is a little better than they are when exercising if their goal is to exercise longer or more vigorously. "Find someone who can challenge you," he said.
Burn more kilojoules working out with a friend
Learn more about strategies to increase physical activity from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.