By Mark Sisson
Every once in a while I run across a study that makes me laugh even as it makes me think. Such was one in a gaming journal (admittedly unfamiliar territory to me). The study assessed the comparative impact of varying degrees of “human-like, software-generated” workout partners (e.g. “a nearly-human-like, humanoid partner (NHP), a hardly human-like, software-generated partner (HHP),” against one another and a no partner control as well as a genuine hominid presented virtually. The concept made me chuckle as I pictured the potential animation, but the results gave me something to consider. Subjects’ motivation was higher and generally the same in any of the partnered conditions, no matter how “hardly human-like” the partner. Other factors like perceived exertion, enjoyment or self-efficacy were also relatively constant among the partnered scenarios. The only significant difference measured was persistence, where the virtual hominid took top honors. (Grok would be proud – or just wholly befuddled.) The conclusion, as drolly described in the title of the study, was “Cyber buddy is better than no buddy.”
The study got me thinking about the advantage of social support and group exercise. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, working out with other people can offer a unique and heightened euphoria that goes beyond physical activity itself. Beyond the obvious Primal associations, our group fitness endeavors offer us a better endorphin release, resulting in greater pain thresholds and even an oxytocin kickback for bonding with said co-participants. What’s not to love?
While the body of research directly comparing solitary exercise with group workouts isn’t as expansive as it might be, other studies have likewise supported the benefits of “social” fitness in one context or another while simultaneously highlighting the complexity of the social “experience” in exercise. One study, for example, showed that group exercise participants experienced greater calmness than those who exercised alone (with self-reports prior to exercising controlling for initial emotional state). However, the group exercise subjects reported being more tired after exercise, which researchers speculate may come from the “increased competition or workload” in a social workout situation.
In another study, subjects reported lower perceived exertion when exercising in the presence of another person than when exercising alone. In a second experiment, participants who exercised next to someone who gave nonverbal cues suggesting the workout was easy reported less exertion. Cues suggesting the workout was more intensive didn’t appear to have a significant impact on subjects’ sense of their own effort. While no physiological differences were observed, the study experiments do underscore the psychological influences the social factor can have.
On that subject, it appears we don’t need a ton of individual verbal encouragement but may be better motivated by the desire to keep up with a more skilled partner - particularly a more skilled partner we believe is on our team. Subjects dramatically increased their exertion (by 90%!) when told a partner in another lab visible on video (actually just a looped recording) had biked longer than they had. Likewise, when one group of subjects was told the person in the video was on their team competing against others, they again boosted their performance. At first, the increase was modest, but over time (as subjects apparently felt more invested in the contrived team relationship), their exertion rose to 160% greater than a simple partnered group and 200% greater than the solo exercisers.
Finally, it appears that even the gender of a simple observer placed in laboratory conditions can impact perceived exertion. In one of those “duh” findings, males reported a significantly lower perceived exertion when a female observer was present and a higher perceived exertion when the male observer was present. Both measures were compared to a no-observer control. When we up the ante and look at actual enjoyment, the picture gets a little fuzzy. In one study, both men and women enjoyed exercise less when an “attractive” female (no, the researchers didn’t do the same experiment with an attractive male – I’m just the messenger) was working out next to them than they did working out alone.
Gender and attraction aside, the social exercise advantage as a whole could be seen as either a subset of social support – or perhaps an extension of it. Countless studies have demonstrated the value of supportive relationships in exercise adherence, but the “support” can vary substantially. Consider the supportive spouse who covers extra home duties while you fit in your daily training or the people who comment on your FB gym “check-ins” or a close friend telling you she’s inspired by and proud of your fitness commitment. How about the colleagues at work who you see at the office gym during your lunch hour workouts – the ones who always say hi and offer encouraging words. You bond a bit over the common dedication but don’t really exercise together. Then there are the people who you consider“your people” at the gym. Maybe you lift together or do a class or running club together. Maybe they’re a weekly walking partner or group. You’re all in the same boat (or maybe even officially a team) working your way toward whatever goal – whether it be weight loss or competition level performance. How would you assess the role or influence of these different supports in your fitness life?
Increasingly, there’s an interest in capitalizing on the influence of others. One app company is even marketing the concept of a “fitness tribe,” in which two or more people buddy up (on the app or in the real world) to share their health commitments and the daily actions that get them there. The concept is certainly a practical one, and I happen to believe that there’s something to virtual community when it can supplement our physical social networks and when it allows us to connect with those who share specific interests (e.g. Primal living). While a virtual “tribe” may not offer all the advantages of an in-person experience, the company’s research suggests those who “team up” with others benefit from making their endeavor “social” instead of “solo” by the regular encouragement in their virtual fitness circle and by its frequent extension to real life contact with workout dates and fitness event participation. Many MDA folks have been connecting in these ways for years, and I hear regularly from readers who have gone from signing up for the newsletter to attending PrimalCon and organizing Primal Meetups in their localities for everything from workouts and potlucks. I think this extension into the real physical realm can be key for many people. All this talk of virtual and networked support aside, there’s something to the concrete presence of another person there on the track, gym floor or hiking trail. We’re wired to respond to the physical nuances of another person’s presence even though we respond to virtual (or even computer-generated) versions of social workouts. If nothing else, I always suggest not settling for something lesser when the something better is wholly available. Sometimes the questions is simply, “Why compromise?”
All this raises the question of gradation. What social fitness experiences are the best in terms of psychological support or motivational influence? It’s something that we probably have to ascertain individually, but some experts suggest the more the group has in common in terms of values (Primal, anyone?) and the more substantial their individual investments, the more supportive and beneficial the group environment. In other words, going once to a drop-in fitness class isn’t the same as working out regularly with the same group of people in a team or club setting.
Finally, there’s the question of whether working out in a group is really worth it for those who genuinely prefer the solo time. For many people, their fitness hours are also their only (or at least most valuable) solitary hours. Some of us crave the solitude. Working out offers us needed time to be alone with our thoughts or without any stimulation, save the input of our muscles and our favorite playlists or park setting. To those who would argue that social fitness is an exercise in frustration more than anything else, I’d say there are countless ways to fill the social well. Social or solo, your body will thank you for it.