If you think friendly encouragement is the best motivator to get you to exercise, think again. A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that competition is a far stronger motivation for exercise than friendly support. In fact, the study found that friendly support actually made people less likely to go to the gym less than simply leaving them alone.
A Penn news release reports that researchers recruited nearly 800 Penn graduate and professional students to sign up for an 11-week exercise program with weekly exercise classes in the University fitness center, fitness mentoring, and nutrition advice, all managed through a website the researchers built. After program completion, the students who attended the most exercise classes for activities like running, spinning, yoga, and weight lifting, among others, won prizes. The researchers didn’t tell the students that they were into four groups to test how different kinds of social networks affected their exercise levels. The four groups were: individual competition, team support, team competition, and a control group. In the individual group, participants could see exercise leaderboards listing anonymous program members, and earned prizes based on their own success attending classes. For each team group, participants were assigned to a unit. In the team support group, they could chat online and encourage team members to exercise, with rewards going to the most successful teams with the most class attendance. In addition, those in the team competition group could see a leaderboard of other teams and their team standing. Participants in the control group could use the website and go to any class, but were not given any social connections on the website; prizes in this group were based on individual success taking classes. The researchers found that, overwhelmingly, competition motivated participants to exercise the most, with attendance rates 90 percent higher in the competitive groups than in the control group. Both team and individual competition equally drove the students to work out, with participants in the former taking a mean of 38.5 classes a week and those in the latter taking 35.7. Members of the control group went to the gym far less often, on average 20.3 times a week. And the team support group? They took only 16.8, on average — half the exercise rate of the competitive groups.