Getting Fit? Why You Need Competition to Stay Motivated

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Whether your fitness goals are to lose weight or to build muscle, competition could be the key ingredient to your success, a new study shows.

In a study published in Preventative Medicine Reports, 790 students from the University of Pennsylvania signed on for an 11-week exercise program. The program had weekly exercise classes from running, spinning, yoga and weightlifting.

“Our past research shows that online social networks can be very effective for motivating behavior change,” said Damon Centola, director of the Network Dynamics Group at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “What we don’t know is why. Is it that people are motivated by the social support they get, or are they more responsive to the competitive influences that come from online networks? To answer these questions, we created our own health program called PennShape.”

Researchers divided students into four groups: a control group and three other groups that tested the impact of individual competition, team support and team competition. The groups were given access to a website created by the researchers which let them log their progress. Prizes, such as rollerblades and bicycles, were given to students who attended the most classes.

The control group participants could use the website and go to any class, but weren’t able to connect socially with others on the website, so they weren’t aware of what anyone else in the program was doing.

The individual competition group was able to view the progress of five other anonymous participants in the program. The team support group was divided into teams of six and had the chance to earn rewards based on the group’s collective activity, giving them motivation to support one another.

The team competitive group was also divided into teams of six and had the ability to communicate with one another, but they were also given access to leaderboards to show how their team was ranked against five other teams.

“The results were overwhelmingly clear,” Centola said. “It didn’t matter whether people were exercising in teams or as individuals. Competition was by far the the most powerful motivator to get people to exercise.”

The two groups motivated by competition went to 90 percent more classes than the other groups involved.

“Why this happened is a really important lesson for anyone trying to motivate people on a large scale,” he said. “A competitive environment puts people into an aspirational mindset. They’re paying attention to the people who are exercising the most and ignoring the others. The people who are exercising the most make the others want to exercise more, and you get a social ‘ratcheting up’ effect in the entire group.”

The research gives more insight into a nationwide problem of young adult obesity. Almost 70 percent of Americans 18 to 24 years of age failed to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity in 2014. Among all social and environmental factors affecting physical activity, social networks are one of the most cost effective ways to get people moving, the study said. Centola said social media can be an effective tool for influencing both good and bad habits.

“We are paying attention to social signals around us,” he said. “There are certainly ways we can create relationships that give people strong incentives for increasing their healthy behaviors, but there are also ways to misuse it.”

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.