Need Incentive to Exercise More? Try Competing With Your Peers

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Can’t find the motivation to meet your fitness goals? A friendly athletic competition among you and your co-workers, tracked online, might give you incentive to get in shape. In a new study slated for publication in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication found that students were more inclined to hit the gym if they saw on social networks that their peers were, too.

The study followed roughly 800 participants, all of whom were Penn graduate and professional students. They enrolled in an 11-week exercise program that provided weekly exercise classes, along with a website that let them log their progress and receive fitness mentoring and nutrition advice.

Without telling the subjects, researchers split them into four groups. In addition to a control group, the remaining groups were formed to test how three variables—individual comparison, team support, and team competition—affected exercise class attendance.

Members of the individual comparison group were awarded prizes based on exercise frequency. They were separated into units of six participants and were given access to an anonymous leaderboard on the fitness program's website tracking how much exercise the others in their unit got. As for the social support group, subjects were assigned to a unit, and an online forum allowed members to encourage one another to exercise. Teams that attended the most fitness classes also won awards. The team comparison group’s units were provided with a leaderboard that tracked how their groups compared to others. Finally, the control group was given access to the website, but its members didn't monitor individual people or groups, or lend support to others. They did, however, win prizes based on their own levels of physical activity.

Researchers found that online competition—not social support—ultimately encouraged subjects to work out more. Groups or individuals that could see how they stacked up against other participants on social networks attended exercise classes at a rate 90 percent higher than in the control team, with the team competition group participating in 38.5 classes a week and the individual competition group taking 35.7 classes.

Members of the control group went to classes 20.3 times a week, and the team support group only attended 16.8 fitness classes per week—half the exercise rate of the competitive groups. This surprised researchers at first, but they ultimately determined that online exercise support groups might draw attention to less-active members, who in turn, drive others in the group to also stop working out. However, framing social media interaction as a competition "can create positive social norms for exercising," Jingwen Zhang, the paper’s lead author, explained in a release.