For many of us, our workout buddy — that friend who will yell if we attempt to bail on barre class (again) — is the key to actually motivating us to get off the couch. Beyond general peer pressure, however, a new study looked into the effect of social influence on exercise — and found that comparing our workout habits actually pushes us to work out even harder and more often.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications by scientists of the MIT Sloan School of Management, analyzed the daily exercise patterns, geographical locations, and social networks of more than 1 million people over the course of five years. They found that exercise truly is socially contagious — in general, we are inspired by the workout patterns we observe in other people in our social networks. If we observe that one of our friends ran a certain distance at a certain speed, we’re usually motivated to run even farther and faster than we otherwise would.
Of course, the exact level of influence depends on a person’s gender and fitness level, study co-author Sinan Aral, the David Austin Professor of Management at MIT, explained to the Cut. “People who are less active influence people who are more active with a greater magnitude than the other way around. Couch potatoes influence marathoners more than marathoners influence couch potatoes,” Aral said. On top of that, the researcher added, men were found to be influenced by both other men and women, while women are only influenced by other women.
The study specifically looked at people who used fitness-tracker devices — like your Fitbit or a running app — and analyzed the effect of being linked with friends on these technologies. The researchers found that sharing your workout results — whether it’s through actually being friends on a specific app or calling friends to tell them how you did — usually pushes people to work even harder. For those who want to boost their exercise game, Aral recommends sharing your workout results with friends who exercise, even if you’re not exercising together.
“Get friends who are improving their own health behaviors, because the greatest marginal benefits will come from those friends who themselves are committed to doing better each day,” he told the Cut. “If you link up with a friend who is perhaps exercising less and less each day, then that will have a diminishing effect on your exercise behavior.”