Their study found that social media competition can dramatically increase people’s fitness.
“Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising,” said lead author Jingwen Zhang, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis.
Social competition among people may go beyond exercise, to encouraging healthy behaviours such as medication compliance, diabetes control, smoking cessation, flu vaccinations, weight loss, and preventative screening, as well as pro-social behaviours like voting, recycling, and lowering power consumption.
On the other hand, friendly support make people less likely to go to the gym less than simply leaving them alone, the study said.
“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation,” added Damon Centola, Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
In the competitive groups, people frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members.
“These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance,” Centola said.
In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly, the researchers explained.
For this study, the team recruited nearly 800 graduate and professional students from the University of Pennsylvania to sign up for an 11-week exercise programme all managed through a website the researchers built.
Competition motivated participants to exercise the most, with attendance rates 90 per cent higher in the competitive groups than in the control group.
The study was published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports.