A recent study published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports compared different ways that fitness routines motivate people to work out and found that competition was a far stronger motivator than friendly support. (Attendance rates were 90 percent higher in the competitive groups than in the control group.) In fact, you’re better off leaving people alone than offering them support, which the study revealed made them less likely to go to the gym.
Think about your own experience: that “You can do it!” text from your best friend may be appreciated — but is it really motivating you to workout any harder or more frequently? We’re much more likely to get in those extra steps when we’re engaged in a Fitbit challenge, or run a little faster when the guy next to us on the treadmill is closing in on 6 miles.
“Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance,” said Damon Centola, an associate professor in Penn’s Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and senior author on the paper. “In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.”
So channel your inner competitor. Get a fitness tracker and create weekly challenges with friends and family. Sign up for a race and set a personal time goal to work towards. Try a group fitness class that ranks your performance in real time, like spin or rowing. Or simply set a goal to keep up with a friend who is working out next to you.
“Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising,” Zhang says, now an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. “Social support can make people more dependent on receiving messages, which can change the focus of the program.”
“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” Centola says. In the competitive groups, however, people who exercise the most give off the loudest signal. “Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance.”
“Social media is a powerful tool because it can give people new kinds of social influences right in their own home,” Centola says. “Lifestyle changes are hard to make, but if you can give people the right kinds of social tools to help them do it, there’s a lot of good that can be done at relatively little cost.”