There appears to be an inherent tendency in most, if not all, of us to gravitate toward the behaviors of others in our environment. Our desire to socially conform can either lead us to partake in health damaging behaviors or result in our adoption of habits that promote health. Recently, research data has indicated that friends and family can have a negative impact on your eating habits during shared mealtimes if they tend to overindulge in calories and "fattening" foods.
If eating habits are influenced by "peer pressure," then can your behavior during exercise be altered by those exercising around you? Researchers from Santa Clara University set out to answer this question. Their study, which was published in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Social Sciences, used the social comparison theory to determine if exercise performance was altered based on the perceived fitness level of a fellow exerciser. The social comparison theory states that individuals rely on their social environment, when objective standards are not present, to determine an appropriate level of action/behavior of which they should partake.
The investigators studied the effects on mood and level of exertion of 91 college-age subjects (43 females, 48 males) who were randomly assigned to one of three testing conditions: biking alone, biking with a high fit individual, and biking with a low fit individual. The high and low fit individuals with whom the subjects exercised were actually research assistants posing as participants in the study. This fact was unknown to the subjects. Those research assistants posing as high fit individuals wore athletic attire and declared "I love exercising" in the presence of the subject. Those who posed as low fit participants were dressed in nonathletic apparel (jeans and slippers) and declared "I don't know why I signed up for this experiment" in the presence of the subject.
The subjects pedaled on a stationary bike for 20 minutes while their heart rate was monitored. They were instructed to keep their heart rates at a moderate level (60-70% of maximum heart rate). Wristwatch heart rate monitors were given to the participants to monitor their own heart rate. Subjects completed questionnaires that measured their mood and level of enjoyment as well as their perception of the degree of difficulty of the exercise.
The data indicated that those subjects who believed they were exercising next to a high fit individual experienced higher heart rates and worked harder than those participants who thought they were biking next to a low fit individual. This trend held true when compared to the results of those biking alone. Interestingly, the female participants tended to have higher heart rates and worked harder when exercising next to the high fit individual than did the male participants under the same testing condition. Mood was not significantly impacted by the different testing conditions.
The researchers state that the results of their study are consistent with the predictions of the social comparison theory. That is, even when instructed to maintain a heart rate at a certain level, the subjects tended to mimic the behavior of their fellow exerciser. The investigators conclude that for someone who is interested in increasing the intensity level of their workout, they should seek a partner whom they perceive to be high fit. However, they note that high fit individuals may not benefit by exercising with someone they perceive to be poorly fit because it may influence them to exercise less intensely.
The desire to "fit-in" with those in your environment can have its benefits. If you are looking to increase your fitness level, exercising with a friend or family member that is highly fit just may help you to achieve your goal a bit faster.
Note: Before beginning an exercise program or increasing the intensity level of a current routine, a physician's approval should be obtained, especially for older adults and those at risk for or who currently have chronic health conditions.
Journal of Social Sciences 6 (1): 50-54, 2010, "Effects of Perceived Fitness Level of Exercise Partner on Intensity of Exertion," Plante, T.G., et al.
Labels: exercise behavior, exercise partners, social comparison study