Many will agree it can be difficult to get yourself motivated to exercise. However, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania think they may have figured out how to encourage people to stick to a fitness regime, with new research suggesting that a little competition is the best motivator when it comes to working out.
For their study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, the team recruited nearly 800 graduates and professional students for an 11-week exercise program called “PennShape.”
The program, which was created by the study’s authors Damon Centola and Jingwen Zhang, provided participants with weekly exercise classes, fitness mentoring and nutrition advice.
Everything was managed through a website, also built by the researchers, and after the program had finished those who had attended the most exercise classes won prizes.
However, unknown to the participants, the researchers had split them into four groups to test how different kinds of social networks affected their exercise levels.
These four groups were individual competition, team support, team competition and a control group.
In the individual group, participants could see exercise leaderboards — although all members listed were anonymous — and earned prizes based on their own class attendance rate.
For the team support group, participants could chat online and encourage each other to exercise, with rewards going to the most successful teams with the highest class attendance rate.
In the team competition group participants could see a leaderboard of other teams and their own team’s position.
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 class attendance.
The results showed that competition was by far the strongest motivator, with attendance rates 90% higher in the competitive groups than in the control group.
Team and individual competition also both had an equal effect on motivating the students, with participants in the team group taking a mean of 38.5 classes a week and those in the individual taking 35.7.
Those in the control group went to the gym just 20.3 times a week on average, and surprisingly those in the team support group went to the gym just 16.8 times a week on average — half the amount of those in the competitive groups.
Commenting on the results Centola explained that, “Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” adding that, “If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.”
“In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else.”