How a Virtual Partner Could Enhance Your Next Workout

You Don't Need an In-Person Partner to Benefit from Partner Workouts

Virtual Workout Partner
Getty Images/John Kuczala

Grabbing a partner and buddying up during workouts is one of the best ways to stay motivated and on track during exercise. With a partner in tow, you've got built-in accountability, increased social motivation and someone who can cheer you on and encourage you to push yourself when you're tired. 

As good as this sounds on paper, though, "Grab a buddy and get fit!" doesn't always work out in real life.

For instance, you may not have anyone in your life who's willing to hit the gym with you, or you may choose someone who's not similarly matched or available when you are. Or you may simply not feel comfortable working out with a friend. 

To counter these problems and provide workable solutions, researchers have started investigating the possible benefits of virtual workout buddies - real or computerized virtual partners you can break a sweat with - and the results look promising. 

The Interesting Research on Virtual Workout Partners

The world of virtual fitness is still in its early days, but so far, the results are fascinating. Three separate studies published in 2011, 2012 and 2014, each found that when exercisers were paired with a virtual workout buddy - typically a video game-like human animation - exercise performance improved significantly. Essentially, the virtual workout partner motivated the person exercising to perform exercise for longer.


The two earlier studies hinged on a particular effect, the Kohler Effect, whereby a person works harder as a member of a group than when working alone. This effect is particularly potent when someone perceives themselves as the "weak link" in the group, just slightly less capable than his or her peers.

Trying to manipulate this effect, researchers had participants exercise alongside a virtual partner who was just slightly better than them - whose performance was manipulated to always "win," but just by a hair. Across the board, study participants improved their performance - either cycling or holding a plank exercise - longer when working alongside this type of virtual partner than when exercising alone.

The 2014 study took it a step further to investigate the motivational differences between working with a human buddy, a virtual buddy or no buddy at all. While actual, real life human workout partners still won out as being the most motivational, virtual partners had a significant impact on exercise performance, proving it's okay to cast your net wider and seek virtual support to reach your fitness goals, rather than trying to find someone in your current social circle.

Video Game Partners Aside, There's a Case for Social Media

It's not just human avatars that help make a difference as you work to get fit.

Social media, workout apps and online programs all have their place in encouraging behavioral change. The trick is knowing how to find and use programs that actually work. And this is, in fact, a trick, because the research hasn't yet caught up with the trend. Here's what we do know, however:

  • Online social circles can boost motivation to exercise. A 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication found that when graduate students were placed into anonymous online "workout groups," the entire group engaged in higher levels of activity, remaining involved in exercise over the course of the whole study. The key here was that even though members of the group were anonymous, all members of the group received notifications whenever anyone else in the group participated in some form of exercise. In other words, it may actually help your motivation if you have Facebook friends who constantly post about their workouts! (It might be even more effective if you hide updates from friends who're constantly posting pics of negative health behaviors, like overindulging on fast food or chugging absurd amounts of beer.)
  • Smartphone apps aren't all equally effective. Chances are you've got a fitness app on your phone - maybe you have several - but not all of them are equally weighted when it comes to incorporating proven Behavioral Change Techniques (BCTs). During a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine looked at 100 top-ranked fitness apps to investigate their use of 93 specific BCTs. Unfortunately, most apps fell startlingly short, on average only incorporating 6.6 in each app. That means there are a lot of techniques that can help promote change that apps just aren't using. And while most apps hone in on social sharing - sharing your activities and progress through social media - most fail to incorporate self-monitoring. In other words, actively reflecting on the activity you perform and how it's affecting your moods and progress, rather than simply allowing an app to track what you do. The takeaway is that an app that works for one person likely won't work for another because the BCTs that work for one person won't necessarily work for another.

Making Online Partners Work for You

Seeking out living, but virtual, partners through apps, social media. and Internet programs may be the solution you need to maximize your motivation. To find a solution that works for you, consider hiring a virtual trainer who can work alongside you from a virtual location, or consider participating in workouts through a live, online program like Live Streaming Fitness.

It's also a good idea to fill your social feeds with people who motivate you. Join Facebook Groups with a workout focus you feel drawn to, or start following motivating individuals on Instagram, Periscope, Pinterest and YouTube. If you're more of an app person, check out BURNTHIS, a Pinterest-like app that offers nothing but fitness motivation, or WellSquad - an app that helps you find workout partners and sync your "team" progress and goals to track success.

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