By Rob Senior
A recent study of college-age females at Kansas State University found that people who exercised with a teammate whom they viewed as stronger or better nearly doubled the intensity and duration of their workout.
"People like to exercise with others and make it a social activity," offers Brandon Irwin, associate professor of kinesiology and lead investigator in the study. "We found that when you're performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone."
Taken at face value, this makes sense. Working with someone who is a master at their craft would likely improve anyone's performance. If you were playing pickup hoops at the gym and Evan Turner joined in, everyone would 'raise their game' accordingly. The same applies to a house band that suddenly had Eric Clapton join them on stage for a set.
But what made this study different was that the participants had no knowledge of their 'teammate' aside from what they were told by the researchers. In part one of the study, participants were asked to simply ride a stationary bike for as long as they could. The average time was 10 minutes.
When the same subjects returned to the gym for their next session, they were told they were working out with a partner in an adjacent facility whom they could see via television screen. In reality, the 'partner' was simply a looped video, but the group was told that their partner had not only been part of the first study, but that the partner had ridden the stationary bike 40 percent longer than them. The result was an average of 19 minutes on the bike for the same group that earlier averaged only about half that duration.
That's quite an impressive improvement, right? Not to the researchers, who had a feeling they'd only scratched the motivational surface and invited the subjects back for one more exercise session. This time, however, they were told they'd be exercising as a team with their virtual partner.
"The team's score would be the time of the person who quits first," Irwin explains. "The participants believed that in the previous trial, they didn't work out as long as the other person. We created a situation where the participant was the weak link."
On average, participants added an additional two minutes to their workout time. All told, the average subject had gone from 10 minutes on the bike when working out solo to 21 minutes of exercise when 'teamed' with a superior partner.
Irwin believes the participants felt they'd built a rapport with their partners, and didn't want to let them down. At the same time, the perceived superior performance of each partner pushed each study subject to levels they previously hadn't come close to attaining.
Research has shown that working out with an exercise partner who is below or roughly at the same performance level, an individual's motivation essentially disappears. An ideal partner is someone who performs at a level approximately 40 percent higher than you.
Irwin said he hopes to use this information in the future to 'partner' actual individuals as opposed to the virtual, pre-recorded subjects in this study. "People from different sides of the country could be matched up based on their fitness goals and levels," he says. "Using technology, you could run with someone using your smartphones."