Study: Exercising With Physically Superior Partners Makes You Better—Even if They Aren't Real

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A great way to get people to work out more is to make them feel inadequate.

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Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

PROBLEM: The Köhler effect occurs when weaker individuals, when placed on a team, perform better than they would on their own. Given time constraints and our general preference for doing things online, being able to harness the phenomenon's power through technology could potentially help motivate individuals to exercise more, and get more out of their workouts.

METHODOLOGY: Brandon Irwin, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University, gathered 58 female college students who rated their own physical fitness as average. In a pre-trial, the women rode exercise bikes on their own for six sessions. They were allowed to stop whenever they chose. Next, they worked out for six more sessions with a partner. They were told the partner was video-conferencing in from another lab, but she was really just a looped video of a person riding a bike -- that they were led to believe was better than them.

Because it would be a shame not include these details, here's how the con was carried out: The fake partner's name was given as either "Stacey" or "Laura." The experimenter would introduce the subjects to Stacey/Laura over Skype, then asked "her" to introduce herself -- secretly pressing a play button as he did so, so that the recording of Stacey/Laura would appear to respond to him. Stacey/Laura would announce that "she was a sophomore, undecided on a major, not sure about career plans, and liked to watch American Idol and reruns of Friends." Lest the participants start thinking that Stacey/Laura was kind of dull, the experimenter would then tell the subject that Stacey/Laura had lasted longer than her during the pre-trial. To really sell the con, Stacey/Laura was taped with different clothing and hairstyles for each session. 

In some of the experiments, the participants just rode alongside Stacey/Laura. Others were told that they were on a team, and that the team score would be based on the time of whoever stopped first. Stacey/Laura, because she was really just a looped video, never stopped first.

RESULTS: The participants went from riding for a mean of 10.6 minutes alone, to 19.77 minutes when alongside the partner, and then to 21.89 minutes when teamed up with the partner. And these are just the overall averages; as they reached the later sessions, the  differences in time increased. Explains Irwin, "In the beginning, the participants were exercising about a minute longer than the partner group. By the last session, participants in the team group were exercising almost 160 percent longer than those in the partner group, and nearly 200 percent longer than those exercising as individuals."

The subjects' perceived exhaustion did not increase, however, suggesting that despite being made to feel inferior, the women were being motivated to work harder in a positive manner.

IMPLICATIONS: Irving has big goals for this. He wants to pair people up with "actual individuals" for all sorts of workouts -- but don't worry, he's not giving up on the cyber angle. "Similar to matchmaking software for romantic relationships online," he explained, "individuals from different sides of the country could be matched up based on their fitness goals and levels. Using technology, you could run with someone using your smartphones."

Until he does that, try finding the most intimidatingly fit person at your gym and asking them to become your jogging buddy.

The full study, "Aerobic Exercise is Promoted when Individual Performance Affects the Group: A Test of the Kohler Motivation Gain Effect," is published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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