Fact: Having the right workout buddy can increase your motivation during exercise by up to 208%.1
Let’s be honest- motivation is sometimes hard to find, especially for the newbies. Whether it be motivation to get off your ass and into the gym, or motivation during a workout, we could all use a little extra juice sometimes (not the Barry Bonds kind). There’s a whole ecosystem of motivational tips and tricks out there that, when pieced together the right way, can help you achieve your goals. Add this one to the repertoire: get the right workout buddy…
In a study conducted in our lab, we asked 3 groups of college-aged female subjects to ride a bike for as long as they could at 65% of their maximum effort across 6 bouts of exercise. The first group rode alone and, on average, rode for about 10 minutes before they threw in the towel.
In a second group, we partnered the cyclers with another female rider, same age, same fitness level, but who, on the first bout, rode 40% longer than our subjects. In other words, we led the subjects to believe that their training partner was trying 40% harder than they themselves were trying (in reality, the partner was actually a video recording that was looped indefinitely- the partner never quit. Sneaky, sneaky.). Compared to exercising alone, people who exercised alongside a moderately-superior partner rode, on average, 100% longer than their solo counterparts.
Partner tip #1: Get a partner who is better than you.
Swallow your ego, folks. Having someone who is a little better than you with whom to compare yourself can inspire you to achieve more than you would, solo, and/or add a little friendly competition to your workout to help get you running on all cylinders. Be careful, though: Choosing someone who is way better than you (e.g., 100% better) or only slightly better (e.g., 5%) doesn’t seem to do much for your motivation– we aren’t motivated by tasks that are perceived as impossible or too easily achieved. 2
Now, if you have ever worked out with a group or a partner, you know that there’s another motivating factor to having a partner- not wanting to let your partner down. In fact, this might just be the little nugget that takes your motivation to the next level…
In the third group of the exercise bike study, we paired subjects with the same partner as in the other partner group (i.e., someone who was 40% better). In this group, however, we also made the subject the ‘weak link’. That is, they were given a team goal, where the achievement of the team goal was highly dependent on the effort of the subject.
Recall that subjects rode the bike on 6 occasions. The first time subjects in this ‘weak link’ group rode with their partner, they rode 2x as long as subjects who rode alone. This was the same outcome we observed in the other partner condition. However, over time, being the weak link had some very surprising advantages…
In addition to having a superior partner to compare themselves to, being the weak link led to increases in motivation over time where, by the last session, participants were riding the bike 208% longer than their solo counterparts and over 100% longer than those riding with a partner, but who were not the weak link (even after controlling for improvements in fitness).
Partner tip #2: Whoever your partner is, make yourself essential for group success.
Being highly interdependent with your partner can help capitalize on a very basic, yet powerful motivator- not wanting to let your partner down. One easy way to achieve this is to create a situation where you (or your clients) are “the weakest link” (goodbye). Consider a) creating team goals where the best efforts of the weakest link are essential for group success (e.g., ‘together, we are going to finish this circuit as fast as we can, and our group isn’t finished until everyone is finished’ and/or b) participating in workouts where teams are competing against or at least have the ability to compare their performance to other teams of similar ability.
We’ve conducted a variety of studies and have found similar results across a variety of conditions [e.g., with both males and females, strength exercise (vs. aerobic exercise), and even in the sport realm (e.g., swimming relays)]. The basic finding is clear and consistent: a partner who is slightly better than you can motivate you beyond what you can do alone. This can sometimes be enhanced by also being the ‘weak link’.
There are, of course, a variety of other factors that we might consider in trying to find the best partner and how to motivate ourselves (e.g., What if you’re a guy and your partner is a girl? Do friends make good partners? What about monetary rewards? What about the superior partner???). I’ll tackle these, and other important questions, in future posts. Until then, swallow your pride and get yourself a ‘better buddy’.
1. Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL, Eisenmann JC, Feltz DL. Aerobic exercise is promoted when individual performance affects the group: a test of the Kohler motivation gain effect. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2012;44(2):151–159.
2. Feltz DL, Irwin BC, Kerr NL. Two-player partnered exergame for obesity prevention: Using discrepancy in players’ abilities as a strategy to motivate physical activity. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2012;6(4):820–827.