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20-05-2012 | Psychology | Article

Exercising with a slightly fitter partner helps motivation and boosts performance


Free abstract

MedWire News: Research suggests that doing a sport such as cycling with a partner who is slightly fitter or faster can help people to exercise for longer and be more motivated than if they exercised alone.

"A key barrier to achieving recommended intensity and duration of physical activity is motivation," say Brandon Irwin (Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA) and colleagues.

The researchers assessed whether having a virtual cycling partner would influence motivation to exercise and length of time spent doing exercise on a bike linked up to a video screen.

In total, 58 young women aged 20.5 years on average were assigned to exercise alongside a virtual person who cycled slightly faster (n=18; conjunctive), independently alongside another person (n=20; coactive), or alone (n=20).

The participants were asked to exercise on the stationary bike for as long as they felt comfortable at 65% of their maximum heart rate for six consecutive sessions over 4 weeks.

The women in the coactive and conjunctive groups believed that they were cycling against someone else who was slightly fitter than them in realtime, but in fact the other person was virtual and programmed to finish shortly before or independently of the participant, respectively. The women were able to track their partners progress while exercising on a supposedly "live" feed, although it was actually a recording.

The main difference between the conjunctive and coactive groups was that the conjunctive participants were told that they and their partner would be given a team score determined by who finished first (when the trial would stop), whereas those in the coactive group could cycle for as long as they liked regardless of how long their partner cycled for.

The average exercise time in each session for the three groups was highest in the conjunctive group, at 22 minutes, as compared with 20 minutes in the coactive group and 11 minutes in the group that exercised alone.

Notably, the between-group difference between those in the control and the conjunctive group increased from 439.6 seconds in the first trial to 1099.0 seconds in the sixth trial.

The team says that this may reflect a significant reduction in the intention to continue exercising in women who exercised alone versus those in the conjunctive group over the six sessions.

Irwin and colleagues believe that their results are an example of the Köhler effect when "compared to working individually, the weaker member of the group tends to be more motivated when working together with a moderately more capable partner, especially when the group's final level of performance depends primarily upon the weaker member."

Writing in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the authors conclude: "Being able to more than double one's performance is a substantial gain for those trying to increase their physical activity. Thus, the findings of the current study may be of particular value in future efforts to help people meet physical activity recommendations."

By Helen Albert

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