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June 2013

The Most Effective Way to Motivate Your Workout Partner

When it comes to encouraging your workout partner or client to train harder, less may be more, according to a new study. Researchers found that exercisers are more motivated by working out with someone who is fitter than they are, while verbal encouragements—“You can do it!”—can actually be counterproductive. 


What do you think of this study? Do you think too much encouragement can be counterproductive? Will this study change how you motivate your clients? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

In other words, says lead researcher Dr. Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University, the best workout partner may be one who understands that silence can be golden.

Irwin and colleagues at Michigan State University collaborated on the study, slated for publication in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, to determine how to best increase motivation during physical activity.

“People like to exercise with other people,” Irwin said. “In exercise groups, people tend to encourage each other, saying things like, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ We wanted to find out what effect this had on motivation.”

In an earlier study, Irwin discovered that the optimal exercise partner is 40 percent better than the other, motivating the less-skilled partner to exercise for a longer period of time and at an increased rate. For this study, researchers told 115 participants to do planks for as long as they could. The first group was told they would be exercising with a partner who was slightly better, and another group was told they would be exercising with a partner, but this time, the partner verbally encouraged them. What neither group realized, however, was that their “partner” was a recording and would never stop the exercise. All participants were told that as soon as they stopped, their partner had to stop.

Although it makes sense that verbal encouragement would be motivating, research found the opposite to be true. “When exercising with someone who is slightly better and who is not verbally encouraging,” explains Irwin, “participants exercised longer than if conditions were the same but that person was verbally encouraging them.”

Irwin admits they were surprised by the results. Their best guess for why this happened is that those who received encouragement from a partner whom they perceived as more skilled may have interpreted the comments as condescending.

“If two individuals are exercising together and one is constantly saying ‘you can do this’ to the other, it may be taken as patronizing,” Irwin says. “Those who received encouragement may have felt condescended [to].”

The fact that participants didn’t know their “partner” was a recording (and, as such, would never stop exercising) might have also contributed to their willingness to exercise longer.

“Being the ‘weak link’ is a big motivator in partner or group exercise,” Irwin says. “You don't want to let your partner down.” Irwin believes this research could be used in designing electronic media, including both video games and social media. In a video game, the research findings could help develop the best virtual character in an exercise-based video game, like the Nintendo Wii Fit.

“Our research suggests that the best virtual workout partner is someone who is a little better than you and doesn't encourage you under certain conditions,” he suggests.

What do these results mean for instructors and trainers looking to motivate their participants and clients? For group activities, pairing more experienced exercisers with slightly less-experienced participants may prove motivating for both. However, it is important to avoid partnering advanced exercisers with novices, who may feel compelled to try to keep up a level of intensity that does not match their fitness levels. For trainers, it is a good reminder to constantly reevaluate how verbal communication is used to motivate clients—and to gauge the effectiveness of your communication style on each individual client. What might be motivating for some—drill sergeant-style commands, for example—might be a turn-off for others.

Source: Irwin, B. et al. (2013). You can do it: The efficacy of encouragement in motivating the weak link to exercise longer during an online exercise video game. Journal of Medical Internet Research [in press].  



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