Competition, not support, may be the way to motivate people to exercise, a new study found.
Lack of exercise is a pretty big health issue. Even though a lack of physical activity has been tied to increased risk to a host of conditions, a large part of Americans don’t follow the official recommendations for exercise — 69% of those aged 18-24 in 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, to be exact.
Motivation to take up and continue with their routine seems to be the biggest factor against exercise. But framing physical activity in a competitive mindset might help, a new study reports. Teeming up with friends is a good way to start up a new routine, for example, as it’s easier to deal with the psychological toll of changing behavior in a group — but what happens after you’ve started?
A study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the effect a much larger group — social media — can have on our motivation. It involved 790 graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, who signed on for an 11-week long program named “PennShape”. It consisted of weekly exercise classes such as running, spinning, yoga, and weightlifting along with fitness training and nutrition advice, all managed through a website the team created. By the end of the program, those with the highest rate of attendance won cash prizes and other rewards.
To test the effect social media has on exercise motivation, the researchers divided the attendees between one of four “conditions”. These were either supportive/competitive — with team/individual rewards for attending the classes — a mixed condition, and a control group. Participants in each condition were organized in teams of six. The social-competitive condition teams received individual incentives, the social-support condition teams received team incentives. The mixed condition (with both supportive and competitive relationships inside the team) could compare their team’s performance to 5 other teams’ performances. The control condition only allowed participants to attend classes with individual incentives.
Each of the groups could check their progress via online leader-boards, but they saw different data. The competition group could see how well the other teams did. The competition-focused individuals in the combined group could see how well other anonymous members performed. For the support group, the participants could chat online and encourage their teammates to exercise. They had no information about how well the other teams performed. The control group did not know about any social connectivity on the website.
Raising the bar
The competitive groups delivered. Attendance rates were 90% higher in the competition-motivated group and the combined group than the others. Average attendance rates for the competition group was 35.7, for the combined one 38.5, with control and social support taking last places with 20.3 and only 16.8.
So not only didn’t the support team help much — the team thinks that they might have in fact reduced the exercise the participants did. So if you want to use social media to help motivate people into doing exercise, framing it as a competition is the way to go. As senior author Prof. Damon Centola explains:
“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.”
“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation.”
“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,” adds lead author Jingwen Zhang, PhD.
But by placing the spotlight on those with the best results, competitive groups increase motivation. People naturally look to those who exercise the most and are inspired to do the same, setting higher expectations for their performance than they would’ve otherwise.
“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,” Centola concluded.
The full paper “Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.