Online competition, not online social support, motivates people to exercise


Individuals who have taken part in a workplace fitness challenge—trying to outstep colleagues, for example—have probably experienced competitive juices flowing, particularly when an online tool showcases rankings. New findings from the Annenberg School for Communication (ASC) reveal people likely performed better in large part because of that competition.

According to the research, published in Preventive Medicine Reports, competition through online networks motivates people to exercise more frequently, says Damon Centola, an associate professor in the ASC and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Online social support, on the other hand, negatively affects whether people work out.

The research stemmed from a basic question: Does technology itself inspire exercise, or does the true motivation result from providing a social context?

“Astoundingly,” Centola says, “social context made a huge difference in people’s willingness to participate.” 

Centola and colleagues built a fitness program called PennSHAPE in collaboration with the Annenberg Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Penn Athletics. They created a class schedule and recruited 800 Penn graduate students to participate for 11 weeks, keeping complete attendance records for 90-plus exercise classes. Participants were randomly assigned to a control subset or individual competition, team support, or team competition groups.

Those in the control program could attend any class and received prizes based on exercise frequency. Individual competition program participants could see leaderboards with overall anonymous rankings and earned prizes based on exercise frequency. Of the two team-based approaches, members on supportive teams could chat online and offer each other encouragement; those on competitive teams could also see rankings of other anonymous teams. Team rewards accounted for the cumulative performance of all group members.

“Participants needed to work together to get a good score,” Centola says.

So why did social support ultimately hurt participation while competition helped? In a competitive context, Centola says individuals pay attention to the most active people. They become social benchmarks, motivating every participant to do more.

“It’s a social ratcheting up effect,” he says. “We all increase each other’s engagement in the program and our willingness to exercise.” 

Conversely, in a social support setting, the worst performers play a larger role because of the group’s collective goals.

“Instead of ignoring them like in a more competitive context, we actually pay more attention to them. They become a reason for me to lower my [own] expectations,” says Centola. 

Applications for these findings include using friendly competition to increase recycling efforts, improve civic participation, or decrease household energy consumption. The key is to design programs in the right way, according to Centola.

“Lifestyle changes are hard to make,” he says, “but if you can give people the right kinds of social tools to help them do it, a lot of good can come at relatively little cost.”

Online Competition