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Exercise and Social Support: What We Know

In-depth research helps explain how to stick with your exercise plan.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

It’s well-documented that fitness centers across the nation see their busiest days in January as people embark on New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, and those number slowly drop in February and the months to follow.

A body of evidence shows that having a strong social support network can help sustain fitness goals. But what exactly does that mean? Researchers are getting closer to understanding specifically what kind of social support can help you stick with an exercise plan.

A new systematic review, published by Canadian researchers in the International Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology, spells out the latest evidence in detail. The review includes 20 longitudinal studies, which track participants over time. And it only included studies that teased out exactly what kinds of social support help people stick with exercise routines. Here’s what the researchers learned:

  • Finding emotional support is an important component to beginning and maintaining exercise programs. That could be someone to complain to when you don’t feel like heading out on that run, or someone to cheer you on when the going gets tough.
  • Practical support—such as a ride to the gym or a gift of exercise gear—did not help participants to begin a new exercise routine, but it did help them to maintain their physical activity levels. Once you have begun an exercise plan, finding someone to support you in practical ways will help you keep it up.
  • If you have embarked on an exercise program before, you have likely encountered someone who worries that you’re “doing too much” or you may injure yourself. The review categorized these type of comments as negative social support and found that they do, in fact, lead people to exercise less. If there are naysayers in your life, it’s best to tune them out when it comes to physical activity.

While there is a solid evidence about the different types of social support for physical activity, researchers found mixed results about the source of social support. For example, some studies found support from a significant other or peers greatly improved participants' chances of sticking with an exercise routine, while others found that type of support made little or no difference.

In fact, some studies found that encouragement from friends and family members made participants less likely to exercise in the future. While that may sound surprising, there is strong evidence that when people are pressured to be physically active by friends or significant others, they shy away from physical activity. The answer might lie in perception: When people think they are being coerced to do something, they are more likely to rebel against it; when they think someone is supporting their own plan, the support is more likely to have a positive effect.

The take-home message is that social support surrounding exercise is a tricky phenomenon. While it may help to have a friend meet you at the gym every morning, there are also some kinds of support that actually discourage people from becoming and staying physically active.


Scarapicchia, Tanya Maria Filomena, Steve Amireault, Guy Faulkner, and Catherine Michelle Sabiston. "Social support and physical activity participation among healthy adults: a systematic review of prospective studies." International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 10.1 (2016): 50-83. Web.

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