EXERCISE
November 8, 2016

Find Your Competitive Edge

Want to up your fitness? Get a little more competitive.

Exercising with friends can help you get out the door — whether it's for mall walking or a daily run. But if you really want to raise your fitness level, developing a little friendly competition with your neighbor or friend is what you really need.

Competition has much more impact than social support or going it alone, as the biggest motivator in our quest to get fit, according to a new study.

A Cunning Study

Eight hundred graduate students at University of Pennsylvania took part in an 11-week fitness initiative which included weekly exercise classes on campus, fitness mentoring and advice about healthy eating. After the program was over, the students won prizes for continuing to take the most exercise classes in a number of different activities.

Participants in the social support group exercised the least of anyone — even less than the control group.

What the students didn't know was that they had been split up into four groups: individual competition, team support, team competition and a control group. In the individual competition group, participants saw anonymous participants’ scores on leaderboards and won prizes based only on their personal activity.

People in the team support group were able to chat online via social media and support their fellow team members. The team that attended the most classes won prizes.

Those in the team competition group could also see other teams’ scores on the leaderboard. Control group participants could use the website but were not socially connected to other members, and their achievements were based only on how much they frequented exercise classes by themselves.

Why Social Support Can Backfire

The results say a lot about what social support can and cannot do: People in the social support group exercised the least of anyone — even less than those in the control group. But the competitive groups, whether individual or team competition, exercised the most — 90% more than the control group. And the individual and team competition groups didn’t differ from one another in how much they exercised, which suggests that it doesn’t matter if you know who your competition is, as long as there’s competition.

Social media and the support it offers have been widely hailed as a boon to exercise, since those social connections “should” spur us to get active. But maybe they’re not as effective as we think.

“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” said study author, Damon Central, in a news release. “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.”

The results definitely tell us something about the role of social connection vs. competition. Social media and the support offered have been widely hailed as a boon to exercise, since those social connections “should” spur us to get active. But maybe they’re not as effective as we think, and a little old-fashioned head-to-head competition is better.

“Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better,” says Centola. “This study shows that isn't true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors.”

The study was carried out at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and is published in the Preventive Medicine Reports.
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