Training with Someone Bigger, Faster or Stronger Can be The Ultimate Motivator
At one time or another, most people have trained with a friend or colleague who was in better physical condition and found themselves achieving impressive results. Common sense suggests that this is due to the motivation to “keep up” with the experienced individual by the weaker counterpart. The mental aspect of falling behind drives them to push harder than they would when left to their own accord. Scientists cite different drivers of motivation including negative/positive reinforcement, support, the availability of spotting assistance, or the sense of accountability and camaraderie that comes with working out in pairs. New research from Kansas State University reinforces this assumption by demonstrating that the key to motivation are the feelings of inadequacy experienced by the less-fit individual. Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology, specifically noted that those who exercised with a teammate whom they perceived to be better increased their workout time and intensity by as much as 200%. He came about this conclusion by testing individuals engaged in intense physical activity when alone, with a virtual partner, and then competing against a teammate. "People like to exercise with others and make it a social activity," Irwin explains, "We found that when you're performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone."
During the initial segment of the study, college-age females engaged in six intense exercise sessions over a four-week period. Each time, the participants were instructed to ride an exercise bike as long as possible. Alone, each participant rode for an average of ten minutes. Later, the participants returned to the lab to engage in the same type of exercise sessions. This time they were told they were training with a partner in another lab who also participated in the first part of the study who was able to ride the bike approximately 40% longer. They could view this partner on a visual screen directly in front of their bike while they trained, but unbeknownst to the participants, their “partner” was actually a video loop. "We created the impression that the virtual partner was a little better than the participant," Irwin said. "That's all they knew about their partner. In this group, participants rode an average of nine minutes longer (average 90% increase) than simply exercising alone."
For the final study segment, participants were invited back to the lab for additional exercise sessions with a virtual partner but were either told that they were now on a team with this individual, or they would be training next to another individual. Irving told the virtual partner ‘team’ group that they were to work together to achieve a team score. He explains, "The team score was the time of the person who quits first. The participants believed that in the previous trial, they didn't exercise as long as the other person. We created a situation where the participant was the weak link." This created a sense of inadequacy in the participants – which seemed to be an ultimate motivator. During this trial the team subjects exercised approximately two minutes longer than simply working out alongside someone. "This was an average, but over time the difference got much bigger," Irving said. "In the beginning, the participants were exercising about a minute longer than the partner group. By the last session, participants in the team group were exercising almost 160% longer than those in the partner group, and nearly 200% longer than those exercising as individuals."
The research team theorized that these improvements occurred because those who believed they were exercising with a partner built a level of rapport over time, and therefore did not want to let the other partner down. "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," Irwin concluded, "It turned out to be exactly the opposite. Over time, it can be very motivating, as long as the conditions are right." According to previous research, if the exercise partner is of the same fitness level or exponentially better, the motivational boost seems to be minimal. Irving and his team found that a partner who worked at a level approximately 40% better was considered optimal."In certain fitness goals, like preparing to run a marathon, consider exercising not only with someone else, but with someone who is about 40% better," Irwin said. "For an extra boost, consider some type of team exercise that involves competition, like playing basketball at a regular time throughout the week.” Based on this investigation, it is clear that public health issues should focus on encouraging practical methods that provide virtual or real-life partner training to maximize efforts and results. Websites that match individuals based on their fitness goals already exist, both for individuals looking for other like-minded athletes with whom they can train as well as singles looking for partners based on a common, fitness-related interest. Apps that allow training partners to compare their data are readily available for computers, smart phones, and tablets, and provide powerful motivation to continue when enthusiasm begins to diminish. And for individuals who prefer to follow a more old-fashioned route, local fitness clubs offer a variety of “team-based” options, from running to triathlon training to fitness competitions. It simply is a matter of getting people connected, involved and engaged when the goal is to increase total physical activity as well as performance.