Competition or Support? The Science Explains What Is Better for Your Workout

Nov 9, 2016

Science has unearthed quite a bit about the physical activity of late. Nothing goes into the laboratory and under the microscope like how people getting motivated to work out, however.

If you have ever fallen off the weight-pumping wagon, have you ever considered that it was your goals and support system that might have caused it? Turns out, a new study reveals that your motivation is a lot more external than you might think.

There are studies that have been published recently that look into what gets people committed to working out. Despite the turnaround of more people seeking to lead active lives, most still live a partially, if not mostly, sedentary lifestyle, which leads to some horrendous health issues – physical and mental.

Thus have research teams gone to work with developing ways to attract more people to get moving instead of watching the television or sitting in the cubicle all day long.

The Experiment

First, the groups sought to test the hypothesis of social networking providing “supportive interactions that encourage healthy behaviors,” because it has yet to be proven if social reinforcement actually does anything for personal motivation.

The initial study was done at Northeastern University. It featured an experimental exercise program called SHAPE-UP that ran for 11-weeks as a social network-based platform. The program had 90 exercise classes that covered a broad range of activities to appeal to all of the students.

Those who participated had full access to the SHAPE-UP program via the internet, and to register for a class, they had to access the social platform and wait to receive a confirmation email. Those who participated the most were rewarded with a $20 gift card, which was the basis of motivation.

Registered subjects were highly involved with the program, and many attended over 35 classes. Group classes showed the best attendance rates, but the research found that “the presence of social support did not significantly affect participants’ exercise levels.”

Now, what was pivotal about this research was how the group of participants was split up. There were 790 people who opted to aid in the research and depending on the team they were placed in, they either met competition or support from their peers.

On the competitive side, a participant would find themselves placed with 5 random friends who they could only track, not interact with. The support groups had the same amount of “buddies” but could also chat, sync up their workout schedules, and provide encouragement. Then, there were individuals who either worked out completely alone or with access to SHAPE-UP intel merely to compare their progress to everyone else.

Read also – 10 Awesome Fitness Apps That Will Keep You Motivated

The Findings

The end result? It is quite astonishing. “We found that social comparison in online networks provided a significantly greater source of social incentives for increasing physical activity than social support,” stated the researchers in their published study.

Furthermore, the individuals who had exposure to the reference points of other program users had the highest increased responsiveness than any of their peers. In other words, it was the competition to do better than anyone else that got people up and running. Literally.

What was even more surprising in the findings was the reaction of those in the social support group. Members of that group actually did less than any of the other teams. This means that getting motivation from others had no effect, regardless of whether that support came from male or females of any age group. Rather than bolstering each other’s efforts, the lazy and the less energetic individuals hindered the efforts of their peers.

Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania, who also played a part in the research, stated that the competitive groups meant keeping one’s focus on the most active individuals and receiving inspiration from their achievements. This constant source of motivation created a “social ratchet,” where everyone wanted to be better than everyone else.

Read also – 6 Fitness Tips from a Personal Trainer

My Thoughts

As a personal fitness trainer, yoga instructor, and dancer, I find this study to be equivalent to what I have found in the gym and dance studio. Focusing on my own motivation, it would be the woman next to me who deadlifts more or the dancer who does pirouettes better.

Rarely I do get revved up when someone tries to be encouraging. As a trainer, I can see how competition is far more motivating than meeting up with the friends. You talk more and move less – and in the fitness world, there should only be you, your goals, and the workout that’s going to take you there.