Competition Is What Really Gets People To Exercise, Study Finds

How to get people to exercise? In particular, if you’re the head of an organisation – a CEO, a school principal, a lifestyle coach – how do you get the people under your tutelage to exercise? Often, efforts are focused on social support and teamwork. But new research suggests that if you’ve got some deadset slobs in the office, you should focus on one thing and one thing only: competition.

The study, from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, was recently published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports. It shows in no uncertain terms that competition is the best way to get a bunch of reluctant people into shape. In fact, offering support turned out to be less successful (and probably a lot more patronising, we’re guessing) than just leaving them alone.

For the study, researchers gathered 800 Penn graduate and professional students for an 11-week exercise programme. Exercise classes were devised, fitness and nutrition advice provided, with everything managed through a specially built website. There was also a system of prizes awarded for different activities.

But without their knowledge, the 800 were also split into four groups, three of which had a particular focus: individual competition, team competition or team support — and one a control sample.

The individual competition group could see leaderboards listing anonymous programme members and earned prizes based on their own success attending classes. For the team groups, the competition unit followed a leaderboard of other teams and their own team standing, while the support team unit was focused on online chat groups to encourage members to exercise. Meanwhile, the control group could use the website but otherwise basically do anything they liked.

The results? Both the individual and team competition groups had much, much higher rates of class attendance than the control group (35.7 and 38.5 classes a week, respectively, compared to 20.3). And compared to the social group the difference was even more stark, those loved-up exercisers only making a miserable 16.8 classes a week.

So what’s going on here? Turns out, it all comes down to signalling. An exercise support group quickly focuses on the weakest members, which creates a downward spiral of participation. In competitive groups, on the other hand, those who exercise the most speak loudest. What follows is an almighty ratcheting effect, where the goals set by the strongest group members give others higher expectations for their own levels of performance.

“Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen,” says Damon Centola in a press release. Centola is a senior author on the paper. “If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.”

It’s a bracing result, and the authors say it can be applied elsewhere: medication compliance, diabetes control, flu vaccinations and preventative screening.

Post Source: Askmen