Is exercise contagious? According to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, running is “socially contagious” among social media users. Seeing people on social media post about longer runs can cause others to push themselves to run more as well.
Millions of people post to social media every day, and it is often used as a way for them to stay accountable in their workouts. In this recent study from MIT, over a million social media users were taken into account as part of a global social network. They posted daily, automatically uploading data from their fitness trackers, following their friends and showing insight into their workouts that day.
Five years later, the data was compiled and analyzed to discover any trends that may have surfaced in the behavior of the runners using this social media network. What they found was that running is contagious. The more the people in a person’s social network would post about running, the more they would run.
The runners in the study would tack on the miles when seeing how much their friends were running, and go for longer runs more often when people in their network posted a longer distance. When someone ran an extra 10 miles, their friends would generally run an extra three miles as a result.
Interestingly, the urge to keep up was not induced by the more competitive runners, but rather the less fit friends. This is not due to being inspired, but more of an incentive to maintain an air of superiority over those a person may deem less fit than them.
Dr. Sinan Aral, professor of Information Technology and Marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, explains the thought process behind this type of behavior.
“We modify and adapt our behavior by making comparisons, both upward and downward. When we make upward comparisons, we are looking to others for inspiration. With downward comparisons, we are looking over our shoulder to see who gaining on us. This research shows us that these downward comparisons far more significantly influence our running behavior. Couch potatoes influence marathoners more than marathoners influence couch potatoes,” he stated.
Regardless of what the selfish motivation behind the reasoning may be, the fact remained that the more friends a person had on social media, the more likely they were to log more miles more often. This was more true of men, who seemed to be influenced by all of their friends. Women, on the other hand, were mostly motivated by other women.
If “keeping up with the Joneses” means becoming a better runner, adding more people to a person’s social network can be a benefit to their fitness. Ramping up that competitive spirit is always a good way to boost motivation, and social media is being revealed as an easy way to do so.