Add Some Competition to Inspire Exercise

Posted 12/26/2016 | By HealthCorps

The sad reality is that most of us don’t exercise at all, and those of us who do, really don’t exercise enough.  The government has set minimal guidelines so it’s easy enough to know how long we need to exercise daily and even what to do.  If you’re struggling with motivation then results from a new study may be the answer.  You need a little competition!!

Current statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics suggests that 68 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-24 years of age fail to meet the 2014 guidelines for physical activity.  Researchers and public health officials have been trying to figure out the key motivators that would inspire individuals to exercise regularly.

The new study released in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports used social media to look at the key motivators for exercise.  Seven hundred and ninety students from the University of Pennsylvania signed up to participate in an eleven week exercise program that the researchers called “PennShape.”  The program included a variety of classes: running, yoga, spinning and weight lifting.  The program also offered additional fitness training and nutrition advice.  The program was managed through a website that the researchers created for the study.

In order to see how social media affected participants, the researchers created four groups of six people each: Support team, competition team, support plus competition team and a control group.  All of the groups had access to different types of information as the competition went forward.

  1. The competition team could see leaderboards that showed how well the other teams were doing.
  2. The support team had access to chatting online and could encourage teammates. They could not see how well the other teams were doing.
  3. In the combined group, the competition-driven individuals could see how well other anonymous participants were doing.
  4. The control group was not told about connectivity among some of the other groups on the website.

At the end of the eleven weeks, participants who attended the most classes received awards and cash prizes.  The researchers noted (overwhelmingly) that competition motivated participants more than social support did.  Attendance rates were 90% higher in the competition group and the combined group.  Social support in general, surprisingly, did not improve exercise attendance and actually seemed to have influenced participants to exercise less.  So in this case “more social media, even if supportive, is not better.”  It can actually backfire.  If however, the social media might have offered some insights into the competition information (how other teams were doing) and then offered words of encouragement, that might have worked to keep participants committed.

The researchers noted that in exercise competitions, those who exercise most likely offer inspiration to other participants (who may not be as motivated) to do the same.  Competition did seem to also ratchet up the social impact in a unique way.  In a competitive setting, those who “do more” inspire others.  In terms of the social media only group, those who did less or stopped (exercising) seemed to give other participants the permission to stop too.

Using a competition plus support from group members who let you know when you are missed (if you skip a class or exercise session), is the perfect recipe for motivating you to maintain a regular exercise habit.

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