One of the most common tips for staying motivated to work out consistently is to have a workout partner who holds you accountable and keeps you company. The good news is this partner can be virtual. Researchers note that there’s an easy hack when it comes to staying on track: Tap into your community.
A recent study in Nature Communications looked at data from a five-year timespan, with more than a million people in a global social network of runners, and found exercise is “contagious” because of the dynamics of being in a group. Researchers noted that those getting encouragement from several other runners in their networks were more likely not just to increase the duration of their exercise, but also their distance and pace.
How can you put the “social contagion” theory into practice for yourself? Consider these strategies:
FIND A ROLE MODEL
Although it can be helpful to recruit a friend as a gym buddy who’s at the same level as you are, it’s even more effective to hang around with those you feel are more accomplished, the recent study found.
“Don’t be afraid to situate yourself near people you recognize as experienced, with great work ethic and who have the skills you aspire to gain,” says Terri Dreger, a personal trainer and director of brand development at 30 Minute Hit. “We become what we surround ourselves with. If you’re next to a person who never quits early and does that one extra rep, you’re more likely to do that yourself.”
That can translate to your online community, too (hello, Instagram), she adds. Following people who celebrate their wins can make you feel more motivated.
For six months, about 600 people from 40 U.S. cities took on a physical activity program for a study called STEP UP. All were classified as overweight or obese and chose their daily step goals. They were separated into four groups, with one focused only on personal goals and self-tracking with wearable devices, while the other three were set up with different types of game strategies.
One group had a designated leader providing encouragement, while another was more collaborative, with three-person teams that worked together to achieve more points. The third group was more competitive, with three-person teams that competed against each other.
After six months, it was that third group who came out way ahead. That group increased its activity by 920 steps more than the control group, and was hundreds of steps higher than the support and collaboration groups.
But it was the check-in three months after the competition ended that showed how much competition can fuel motivation. Even though the challenge was done, those participants continued to have nearly 600 daily steps more than the control group, while the other two groups dropped down in step count.
“This shows that efforts to increase physical activity are more likely to succeed if they combine the use of a wearable with an effective behavior-change strategy,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Mitesh Patel, MBA, director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit. “That includes friendly competition, telling others in a group about their goals and accountability from that group when goals aren’t being met.”
Social connections can yield benefits beyond amping up your fitness goals, too. Tapping into online communities can help you feel like you’re not alone when it comes to food tracking, sleep, work stress, even how relationships might be affecting your healthy habits.
For example, MyFitnessPal has a robust online community, with users talking about everything from weight-loss plateaus and macros to strategies for losing stubborn belly fat and using the app for more features beyond food logs.
Much like the advice to gravitate toward people who are closer to the goals you want to reach, surrounding yourself with others who have similar nutrition habits can be helpful, too.
According to a recent study, people tend to eat based on their perception of how others in their social media networks are eating. If you think others are all about meal prep, vegetables and lean protein, that’s likely how you’ll eat, too, according to the study’s co-author, Lily Hawkins of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. And if you think all your friends and acquaintances are indulging in junk food, you’ll likely be more tempted to stray in that direction.
“The main message here is that social media may be influencing our eating habits more than we think,” says Hawkins. “Because of that, we may want to think about what we are posting online since this could be influencing other social media users’ food choices.”
FEEL INSPIRED, NOT INTIMIDATED
Social media, in-person connections at the gym and online communities can all boost motivation, but when used incorrectly, they can also be de-motivating, says Dreger.
“You know you’ve gone overboard in the competition department when you start feeling discouraged,” she notes. “That means you’re doing more comparison with others, rather than competing with them in a healthy way. That’s a slippery slope.”
Ultimately, she advises, your only real competition is yourself, and your only goal is to be the best version of you. But that doesn’t mean you have to get there alone.