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New study reveals that exercise is socially contagious

When it comes to exercise, you may want to keep your friends close. A new study published in Nature Communications revealed that exercise is socially contagious, observing that exercise data shared on social networks influenced the exercise habits of people who saw them.

For the study, researchers Sinan Aral and Christos Nicolaides of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed data from an unnamed global social media network. The data came from 1.1 million users who shared their running information on the network over four years, via a variety of fitness tracking devices and apps. These devices tracked their running time, speed, duration, and other stats, and posted the information automatically when connected to the social media platform.

The researchers observed that people ran further and faster when their friends did so. More specifically, they found that an extra kilometer run by a person resulted in an additional 0.3 kilometer for his or her friends. In the same way, an additional 10 minutes run by a person resulted in three minutes added running time among that person’s social circle. They also found that an extra 10 calories burned by a friend leads to 3.5 extra calories off for friends. This contagion, however, lessened over time.

The level of influence a person has changed depending on their gender and how active they are, the researchers said. Less active runners were found to be more influential than their more active counterparts. At the same time, men are influenced by both men and women, while women are only influenced by other women.

“This may be due to gender differences in the motivations for exercise and competition. For example, men report receiving and being more influenced by social support in their decision to adopt exercise behaviors, while women report being more motivated by self-regulation and individual planning. Moreover, men may be more competitive and specifically more competitive with each other,” Aral and Nicolaides said.

The benefits of going social

Whether it’s through seeing their exercise habits on social media, or working out with them in real life, friends can be the most powerful motivators when it comes to exercise. An article in cited a study that compared people who joined a weight loss program with friends, and those who did it alone. The study found that 95 percent of those who did the program with friends completed it, a much higher rate compared to the 76 percent for those who went through the program alone. Furthermore, those who did the program with friends were 42 percent more likely to maintain their weight, the study said.

Another study by researchers from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology observed members of the Oxford rowing team, comparing those who trained with a group with those who trained alone. The athletes who trained in a group were found to have a higher pain threshold post-workout than those who exercised solo. A higher pain threshold indicates a higher level of endorphins, the hormones that are released during physical activity and are responsible for what is called “runner’s high”. The researchers found that “synchronized physical activity elevates mood and enhances a sense of social bonding”, taking note of other social activities such as laughter, music, and shared religious rituals that produce the same euphoric effect.

Evidently, no man is an island — especially when it comes to working out. Social workouts such as CrossFit, Acroyoga, dance classes, competitive sports, and group running or biking are open to anyone who needs to give their workout a friendly boost. But even those who prefer working out alone can socially supercharge their exercise – all they have to do is go online.

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