Lack of physical activity has been shown to increase the risk of chronic illness and mortality. Yet, a large part of the American population fails to meet the government’s recommendations for physical activity. According to a new study, competition might be the key to getting us to workout more.

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Competition drives us to exercise more, according to a new study.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 69% of Americans 18-24 years of age failed to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity in 2014.

To remedy the situation, researchers and governments have tried to uncover key motivators for people to maintain a schedule of physical activity, as well as cost-effective strategies to increase motivation.

Teaming up with friends and engaging in physical activity routines together is thought to be good for starting a new fitness routine, as the psychological costs of changing behavior are easier to bear in companionship.

But how does social media affect our motivation? Does a friendly, supportive environment help promote physical activity? Or might competition be more effective?

A new study, published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania looked at key motivators for exercise in the context of social media. The study was led by Jingwen Zhang, Ph.D.

The study involved 790 graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania who signed up for an 11-week exercise program called “PennShape.” The exercise program consisted of weekly exercise classes that included running, spinning, yoga, and weightlifting.

The program also included fitness training and nutrition advice, which were all managed through a website created by the researchers. At the end of the program, those who attended the most classes won rewards and cash prizes.

In order to see how social media affected the participants, researchers divided them into four groups of six persons each: support team, competition team, a combined team with both support and competition, and a control group.

All the groups had access to online leaderboards, but for each group, leaderboards showed different things.

The competition team could see a leaderboard of how well other teams did. Competition-driven teams were rewarded based on the average number of classes attended. The competition-driven individuals in the combined group could see how well other anonymous program members performed. They also earned prizes based on their class attendance.

In the team support group, participants could chat online and encourage their teammates to exercise. The support group did not know how well other teams performed.

The control group did not know about any social connectivity on the website.

Competition motivated participants to exercise overwhelmingly more than social support. In fact, attendance rates were 90% higher in the competition-motivated group and the combined group, compared with the other two groups that had no competition.

The average attendance rate for the competition group was 35.7, the one for the combined team was 38.5, 20.3 for the control group, and the worst rate belonged to the social support team – with only 16.8.

The social support group had no significant impact on improving the exercise rate. In fact, it might have caused participants to exercise less.

The study gives us important information about how to use social media if we want to change behaviors.

Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better. This study shows that isn’t true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors. However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people’s fitness dramatically.”

Prof. Damon Centola, senior author

Lead study author Zhang also explains why competition is such a strong motivator:

“Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising. Social support can make people more dependent on receiving messages, which can change the focus of the program.”

Prof. Damon Centola adds that “supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation.”

In the competitive groups, however, people who exercise the most inspire others to do the same.

“Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance,” says Prof. Centola.

Competition triggers a social ratcheting-up process, he adds:

“In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list several benefits of physical activity. Moderate exercise can help with:

  • Weight control
  • Reducing cardiovascular disease risk
  • Reducing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome risk
  • Reducing risk of some cancers
  • Strengthening bones and muscles
  • Improving mental health and mood
  • Improving ability to do daily activities and prevent falls
  • Increasing chances of a longer life.

Some studies have shown that as little as 92 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 15 minutes a day, can reduce the risk of all-cause mortality by 14%.

In the Lancet study from 2011, those who exercised as little as 15 minutes a day already had a 3-year longer life expectancy.

Every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise beyond the minimum daily amount of 15 minutes further reduced all-cause mortality by 4% and all-cancer mortality by 1%.

Read about how regular exercise may safeguard against memory loss.