We all know that a little bit of friendly competition at the gym, whether it’s a buddy workout program or even a training partner challenge, can be motivating and (so long as you don’t get too bent out of shape about winning or losing) pretty damn fun. 

But competition may be more critical to long-term success when it comes to achieving fitness goals than previously thought, according to a new study to be published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. And while of course we’re talking “friendly competition” the emphasis should be more on the competition part than the friendly part, according to the research. Competition via social media is a much greater source of motivation for exercise than friendly support, which according to the research, can actually make you less likely to the hit gym. 

“Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better,” says Damon Centola, an associate professor at Penn's Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as a senior author on the paper. “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.”

In the study, researchers recruited approximately 800 Penn graduate and professional students to sign up for an 11-week, federally funded exercise intensive program called “Penn Shape.” Through the program, participants had access to weekly exercise classes, fitness mentoring, and nutrition advice, all of which was managed through a website that the research team created. After the participants completed the program, they would be award prizes based on who attended the most exercise classes. What the participants were unaware of, however, was that they were separated into four separate groups comprised of different kinds of social networks: individual competition, team support, team competition, and a control group. 

Each group’s experience using the website was slightly different, except for the control group. For example, in the individual group “participants could see exercise leaderboards listing anonymous program members, and earned prizes based on their own success attending classes,” while in the team support group they “could chat online and encourage team members to exercise, with rewards going to the most successful teams with the most class attendance.” The control group has access to the website and could attend any exercise class, but were not able to have any social interactions through the website. 

The Results

The research found that competition was the overwhelming factor in motivating participants to attend exercise classes,  with attendance rates 90% higher in the competitive groups than in the control group. Somewhat unsurprisingly, data from both the team and individual competition groups found that a desire to win the prizes were motivating factors, however, the most surprising numbers came from the team support group. On average those in the team support group, which means they were able to communicate online and motivate each other to attend workouts, completed only 16.8 workouts per week—less than half the average from the team and individual competition groups. 

“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” Centola says.“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.” 

So next time you want to send your gym buddy a motivational text, remember that you’re (both) probably better off just making a plan to hit the gym and wagering a beer on who can finish the workout circuit fastest.  

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