FRIDAY, Nov. 30 (HealthDay News) -- What would it take to get
you to regularly exercise longer than you do now?
New research suggests that you might just need a virtual buddy
who you think is stronger than you.
A small study of female college students suggests that competing
against a teammate or virtual partner helps people ramp up their
exercise more effectively than if they worked out alone. The study
also found that even though participants who were paired with a
strong workout partner exercised much longer, they didn't feel any
more tired after the fitness bout than did people who exercised
alone for a shorter period of time.
"When the goal is to exercise longer, a partner who is a little better than you are can make a big difference," said study author Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University. "It gives you a goal, and may even inspire you to raise your goals."
The study was published recently in the
Annals of Internal Medicine.
Irwin wanted to know how to motivate people to push a little
harder during their workouts. Although the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine
recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week with
no fewer than 10 minutes a segment, many people aren't meeting that
goal, he said.
"Even those who are exercising long enough often fail to reach the recommended level of moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk," Irwin explained. And to be involved in vigorous exercise, he explained, people have to reach and sustain a level of exertion at which it's difficult to have a conversation while working out.
Irwin wanted to see what it would take to help study
participants get to the next level. The researchers recruited 58
female students at Michigan State University who were assessed for
their physical fitness and regular physical activities.
Participants exercised on a stationary bike for six 60-minute
sessions over four weeks, creating baseline data.
Then the participants returned to the lab for more exercise
sessions, but were simply told they were working out with a partner
in another lab whom they could see on a video screen. (In reality,
the monitor showed just a looping video, rather than a live feed of
the other woman).
The participants were all told that their virtual partners had
ridden their bikes 40 percent longer in the initial sessions than
they actually had. Perhaps inspired to do as well as their virtual
partners, the women then doubled their bike times as compared to
their average baseline sessions.
The researchers then told the participants that they were
working with their partner to achieve a combined team score, which
would be solely based on the time of the person who stopped cycling
first. Each participant was told that their partner had managed to
cycle longer in the previous session.
After several sessions, participants who believed they were
working as a team exercised almost 160 percent longer than those
working with a partner, and 200 percent longer than those who
Although this study involved only women, Irwin said other
research he and his colleagues have done involved both genders.
They found that if you pair a man with a woman who is more fit
than he is, the man will be exceptionally motivated. Pairing a man
with another man who is more fit also increases the less-athletic
man's motivation to succeed, Irwin said.
What if your exercise partner -- real or virtual -- happens to
be less vigorous than you are? Although that wasn't the focus of
this study, Irwin said other research has shown that "you'd tend to
be less motivated and would try less hard than if you were
exercising by yourself."
Irwin explained that if an exerciser or teammate works at a
level that is approximately 40 percent better than his or her
partner, the motivation for the less fit partner to exercise
aggressively is optimal. "At that level of difference, reaching the
same level is both difficult and achievable," he said. "That's the
Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on
Exercise, in San Diego, said the results of the study are
consistent with other behavior-modification research and applies to
more than athletics.
"Just as with eating habits, if you're in the company of individuals who make prudent choices, you will make better choices yourself," Bryant said. "To me, the real nice message here is that hanging out with people who model positive behavior -- in this case virtually -- probably will have a positive effect on what you do as an individual."
But Bryant warned that pairing yourself with someone whose
athletic prowess greatly exceeds your capacity could cause
problems. "It would be demotivating, and you could over-train," he
The bottom line? Irwin advises people to find someone who is a
little better than they are when exercising if their goal is to
exercise longer or more vigorously. "Find someone who can challenge
you," he said.
Learn more about strategies to increase physical activity from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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