Underdog to Exercise Harder

Exercise time increases with a little competition

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Having a healthy rivalry is good. That edge is just the push to help people work out longer and harder.

New research shows how women bring the heat to their exercise if they feel someone else is doing better than them.

Motivation from a partner or group in a competitive way impacts how people exercise, improves performance and makes health gains.

The motivation goes down if the opponent is at the same level or if they're too far advanced than the first person, researchers said. To get the best work out, the partner should be about 40 percent better.

"Workout with a competitive buddy."

Brandon Irwin, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University, led researchers in finding whether women exercise harder with a partner, against a teammate or alone. Women can typically exercise at less intense levels than men, which allowed researchers to better study what motivates them to work out.

The study had 58 women recruited from physical activity classes at the university. Each rode a stationary bike on six separate days within a four-week time frame. They were randomly assigned into groups with one of three workout conditions.

Women in the first group worked out independently next to another person. In the second group, women exercised by themselves.

Those in the third group were matched with a virtual partner, which was a pre-recorded looped video, who was supposedly better than the participants.

The women did not know they were recordings and were told the partners rode between 8 and 12 minutes longer than the participant over the course of the exercise meetings.

At one point, researchers told the women that they were teamed up with their partner and would be scored on how long they could ride the bike. Their score would be the time of the person who stopped riding first. The first two groups were not on a team and no score was kept.

As they exercised, researchers monitored each participant's heart rate to keep them all working out at the same rate.

They adjusted the intensity of the bike to ensure the participants kept their heart rate at 65 percent heart rate reserve, which is a scale of how fast the heart can beat.

At the end of the study, those who exercised alone and next to someone else worked out about 11 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively.

The participants in the second group exercised about 23 minutes on average, which was longer than other two groups.

"We created the impression that the virtual partner was a little better than the participant," Dr. Irwin said in a press release.

"That's all they knew about their partner. In this group, participants rode an average of nine minutes longer than simply exercising alone."

In the first exercise sessions, the women exercised about a minute longer than their virtual partner. By the end, the participants rode the bike almost 1.6 times longer than those in the partner group and almost twice as long as the solo exercisers.

"If they're constantly working out with someone who's beating them, we wondered how motivated people would be to keep coming back and getting beat again," Dr. Irwin said.

"It turned out to be exactly the opposite. Over time, it can be very motivating, as long as the conditions are right."

Rusty Gregory, a certified wellness coach and dailyRx Contributing Expert, says that working out with others "is a wonderful tool in helping people start and sustain an exercise program."

"Once we commit to exercising with a partner we are more likely to continue because we don't want to be considered the weak link and let the other person down," he said. "It exploits our weaknesses."

Although the study participants did not raise concerns about whether the virtual partner was real, the researchers note they don't have any proof that the women actually believed in them. Their belief may affect how hard they exercised.

In addition, the study was done in a lab, which can also impact how much the participants worked out.

The study was published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine. The authors didn't have any conflicts of interest, and funding information was unavailable.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 28, 2012
Last Updated:
March 7, 2013