If you’ve ever been inspired to hit up the gym after seeing your friend’s sweaty workout selfie on social media, turns out you’re not alone. According to a new study published in the scientific journal, Nature Communications, exercise could actually be contagious – particularly among women.
Researchers Sinan Aral and Christos Nicolaides analysed data from 1.1 million people’s exercise trackers over a five year time frame. During that period, the participants ran a combined 350 million kilometres and all the runs were shared on social media.
The researchers found that exercise sparks the natural competitive streak in most of us. So if someone runs 1km further than usual, it tends to inspire their friend, who already usually runs more, to run even further than usual.
Likewise if someone runs faster than normal, it encourages someone who usually runs faster than them to run even faster.
It’s the same sort of theory that explains why group classes are so popular. Gym-goers tend to push themselves a little bit harder when they know other people are watching. Equally, if you exercise with a buddy you’re less likely to quit the cross trainer and more likely to drive yourself on to a treadmill personal best.
But, though the research does highlight how strong the exercise competitive streak can be, it only works in certain ways. While less active runners influence more active runners, the same can’t be said if the situation is reversed. And interestingly, though both men and women influence men, the study claims it’s only women who influence other women.
The study authors say the results could be partly explained by people’s natural desire to compare themselves to others. “Social comparisons may provide an explanation for these results,” they write.
“Comparisons to those ahead of us may motivate our own self-improvement, while comparisons to those behind us may create ‘competitive behaviour to protect one’s superiority’.”
In other words rather than the drive to push yourself further being down to spurring each other on, it could be down to us trying to keep up with or out-do other people.
But whatever the reason for this exercise competitiveness, there’s no denying it can sometimes be a struggle to swap the sofa in our slippers for the treadmill in our trainers. So, if it takes seeing your friend’s humble brag about that 10K they just pounded to get you up and running, then so be it.