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 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—their performance improved significantly. Essentially, the virtual workout partner motivated the person exercising to perform exercise for longer periods of time. 

The two earlier studies hinged on a particular effect, the Kohler Effect, whereby a person is more likely to work 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 a group, just slightly less-capable than his or her peers.

Trying to manipulate this effect, researchers asked participants to exercise alongside a virtual partner that was designed to perform just slightly better than the human subject—whose performance was manipulated to always "win," but just by a hair.

Across the board, study participants improved their performances—either cycling or holding a plank exercise—when exercising alongside this type of virtual partner.

The 2014 study took it a step further, investigating the motivational effects of working with a human buddy, a virtual buddy, or no buddy at all. While real-life human partners won overall, leading to the highest motivation levels, virtual partners still had a significant impact on exercise performance, proving that it's okay to cast your net wider to seek a virtual support network to help you reach your fitness goals.

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

It's not just virtual human avatars that can make a difference during workouts. Social media, workout apps, and online programs all have their place in propelling 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 is known so far:

  • 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 your Facebook friends constantly post about their workouts online. (And while the research isn't there yet, the opposite may hold true as well—you might experience more positive health outcomes if you hide social updates from friends who constantly post pictures 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. Overall, apps averaged only 6.6 BCTs in each app. That means there are a lot of techniques that help promote change that apps 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 apps that work 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.

Sources: 

Feltz D, Forlenza S, Winn B, Kerr N. "Cyber Buddy Is Better Than No Buddy: A Test of the Kohler Motivation Effect in Exergamers. Games for Health Journal. 2014. 

Irwin B, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr N, Eisenmann J, Feltz D. "Aerobic Exercise Is Promoted When Individual Performance Affects the Group: A Test of the Kohler Motivation Gain Effect. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2012. 

Michigan State University. "Virtual workout partners spur better results, study finds." ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110518161707.htm . May 2011.

Yang CH, Maher JP, Conroy DE. "Implementation of behavior change techniques in mobile applications for physical activity." American Journal of Preventative Medicine. April 2015. 

Zhang J, Brackbill D, Yang S, Centola D. "Efficacy and causal mechanism of an online social media intervention to increase physical activity: Results of a randomized controlled trial." Preventative Medicine Reports. 2015. 

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