Study finds exercise is contagious, especially among men

If you've found yourself covering more territory on your runs, it's probably due to peer influence.
If you've found yourself covering more territory on your runs, it's probably due to peer influence. Martin Novak

If you’ve found yourself logging more miles on the treadmill or spending a few more minutes on the running trail, you can likely thank your friends for that.

A new study out of MIT has found that runners who use exercise trackers to measure their runs are influenced by other users’ performance. The first large-scale study of its kind, it examined the running behaviours of 1.1 million people worldwide over five years to determine what influences people’s exercise patterns.

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“Theories of social comparisons indicate that we motivate our own behaviours by comparing ourselves to our friends, family and peers,” says Sinan Aral, lead study author and professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

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It’s difficult to determine if behaviours like exercise are socially spread or contagious. After all, if birds of a feather flock together, then marathon runners are probably going to be friends with other marathon runners, which makes it difficult to determine if one person’s run was influenced by their friend’s performance or if they both just love to run and are friends because of it. For this reason, Aral used weather as the determining factor.

“If it’s raining in New York, causing me to run for a shorter period of time and that changes the running pattern of my friend in sunny San Diego on the same day, it can only be due to peer-to-peer influence,” Aral says.

As runners entered their data into their fitness trackers and shared that information with their friends in different cities, Aral and his team cross-referenced the exercise patterns with global weather data.

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The researchers found that if one person ran 10 minutes longer on any given day, their friends would tack an extra three minutes to their run, even in inclement weather. The same was true for speed — one runner’s upped speed would inspire another’s faster pace.

This was especially true for men. In fact, the researchers noted that men were influenced by both their female and male friends’ performance, while women were only influenced by other women’s performance.

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“The strongest contagion is men’s influence over other men,” Aral says. “That doesn’t mean that men are better runners, but that they’re more motivated by looking at peers.”

Interestingly, the study also determined that sedentary people yield more influence than active ones: a couch potato has more pull over a marathoner than the other way around. This is attributed to what Aral calls downward social comparison.

“If you’re running and you look over your shoulder to see someone gaining on you, that will likely motivate you to run faster versus trying to keep pace with someone who’s running ahead of you. We’re more interested in protecting our lead,” he explains.

This is all fine and well for people who look to their peers for a little extra push, but it can prove to be a detriment if competition is the main motivating factor.

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“If tracking one’s progress in comparison to others becomes the main motivating agent, the person may lose sight of the true enjoyment of running,” says Pier-Eric Chamberland, chair of sport and exercise psychology at the Canadian Psychological Association. “It may become a source of negative feelings following a series of bad or missed performances, and ultimately deter the person from a healthy running routine.”

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By all means, turn to your friends for incentive, but don’t turn them into your opponent.

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