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Study Identifies No. 1 Source of Motivation to Exercise More

Competition may be the best source of motivation to exercise more and sit less.

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Digital Social Networks Can Motivate People to Exercise More
 Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

Healthy competition motivates people in an online social network to exercise more than friendly support, according to a new study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The October 2016 findings appear in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports.

Increasingly, life in a digital age has made sedentism and inadequate levels of physical activity a nationwide problem of epidemic proportions. According to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69 percent of Americans 18 to 24 years of age failed to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity, which is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Among the broad spectrum of factors that influence someone's daily exercise habits—and weekly quantities of cumulative physical activity—social networks are one of the most prominent targets for cost-effective, large-scale interventions. That said, the Penn researchers were surprised to find that certain types of interpersonal support within a social network can, inadvertently, make someone less motivated to exercise.

Healthy Competition Is an Unbeatable Source of Motivation to Exercise More

The research team led by Damon Centola, an associate professor in Penn's Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and senior author of the paper, were curious to pinpoint what online social dynamics most effectively motivated people to be more physically active. The wide range of factors they investigated boiled down to a comparison between friendly competition or supportive camaraderie.

For this study, Centola and lead author Jingwen Zhang recruited 790 members of the Penn community (with an average age of 25) to enroll in an 11-week exercise program coined 'PennShape.' Everyone's participation in various activities—ranging from spin classes, jogging, yoga, and weightlifting—was managed and monitored through an interactive website the researchers built from scratch.

Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers then divided people into four groups to monitor how various types of social networks and sources of motivation impacted their exercise behaviors. The four groups consisted of individual competition, team competition, team support, and a control group that did not have support or competition.

In an unexpected twist, the researchers found that giving people too much support via social media often sabotaged their enthusiasm and determination to be more active. In a statement to the University of Pennsylvania, Centola said,

"Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better. 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. However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people's fitness dramatically."

The 'PennShape' initiative offered students weekly exercise classes at the University of Pennsylvania fitness center, along with fitness mentoring and nutrition advice. Below is YouTube clip of Centola describing this study:

Overwhelmingly, competition motivated participants to do the most exercise every week by creating an aspirational mindset. In fact, attendance rates were 90 percent higher in the competitive groups than in the control group. Analysis of the study data showed that both team and individual competition drove students to work out at approximately the same rate.

The researchers were surprised to discover that the number of weekly workouts by participants in the team support group were even lower than the control group. In the statement, Zhang said, "Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising. Social support can make people more dependent on receiving messages, which can change the focus of the program."

Competition appears to trigger a ratcheting-up of physical activity levels that creates an upward spiral within an entire peer group, according to the researchers. Within a competitive framework, each person's activity raises the bar for everyone else and creates a contagious chain reaction marked by increased levels of physical activity for the entire group.

Conversely, too much social networking without a competitive element often demotivated individuals, which trickled down to take the wind out of the sails for the entire group. For example, the researchers found that if one person in a 'supportive group' stopped exercising, it created a domino effect in the form of an unspoken cue to cohorts that it was OK for others within that social network to stop exercising, too.

Healthy Competition Can Improve Motivation in Many Aspects of Life

The researchers emphasize that the benefits of healthy social competition go beyond exercise and can do tremendous social good. Encouraging behaviors such as weight loss, medication compliance, diabetes control, smoking cessation... As well as prosocial behaviors such as voting, recycling, and lowering energy consumption—could all benefit from structuring online social networking models that include friendly competition.

Using digital devices to create healthy competition with yourself is another viable option for increasing your levels of physical activity. Whether you are striving to take 10,000 steps a day or achieve a total of 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, keeping track of how much exercise you did yesterday is an easy way to kickstart your motivation to do slightly more activity today. This is a simple way to set new fitness goals and make exercise a habit by continuously competing against your own daily track record.

There are countless fitness trackers and apps that can create an aspirational mindset that inspires you to achieve personal bests throughout the week. i.e. Every iPhone automatically tracks the number of steps you've taken, miles walked, and stairs climbed on a daily basis, outside of the gym. Click on the "health" icon of your smartphone to scroll through a recap of your daily, weekly, and monthly activity levels.

If you are crunched for time, remember, many studies have found that very small amounts of daily physical activity reap huge benefits. As an example, a September 2016 study reported that walking just 15 minutes a day was associated with a 22 percent lower risk of death for people over 60 years of age. Inactivity can be a matter of life and death. And, when it comes to physical exercise, doing anything is always better than sitting all day.

"Social media is a powerful tool because it can give people new kinds of social influences right in their own home," Centola concluded. "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."

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