Commentary

Social Media Competition Boosts Fitness Participation

While it’s nice to think that fitness is its own reward, and we should only exercise for ourselves and not worry about what other people think and all that nonsense, the truth is that human beings are a competitive bunch.

It’s fun to win. In fact it turns out that online competition facilitated by social media can dramatically improve fitness participation, according to new research.

The study, titled “Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity: A randomized controlled trial,” and published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, divided a total of 790 subjects (all college students) into six-person teams, with incentives offered based on the number of fitness classes attended.

Some teams were able to view online comparisons of their own performance with other teams via a custom-built social media program, while other teams were not. Further, some teams were able to use inter-team social media support mechanisms, including chat, while other were not.

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Overall the researchers found that teams who were allowed to view performance comparisons on social media showed class attendance 90% higher than teams that didn’t view them, with average attendance ranging from 35.7 to 38.5 classes per week for the former and 16.8 to 20.3 for the latter. The highest participation was seen among teams that could both view other teams’ performance and communicate with each other online.

The authors conclude: “Our results suggest that networks that emphasize social comparison among members can be surprisingly effective for motivating desirable behaviors. The results from the combined condition, where adding team performances to a supportive environment significantly increased exercise levels, suggest that the introduction of a minimal competitive reference point into an otherwise support-based environment can change ineffective health networks into highly motivating social re- sources.”

This isn’t the first research to suggest that social media can boost fitness outcomes. Previously I wrote about a study from researchers at the Imperial College London, consisting of a meta-analysis of twelve previous studies that used online social networks for weight loss interventions with a total of 941 study subjects and a similar number of control subjects. Nine studies used only Web-based social platforms, and three combined Web-based platforms with phone communication or mobile technology. The analysis showed that these interventions produced an average 0.64% reduction in body mass index among study subjects and a 0.79% reduction in waist circumference.

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