Need to exercise more? Get an emotionally supportive exercise buddy


Two heads are better than one, they say – and two bodies too, when it comes to an exercise regime. If you're struggling to stick to a training schedule, the solution could be as simple as finding a friend, says head of Vitality Wellness, Dr Craig Nossel.

Ever considered entering a race or group walk, but dropped out because you didn’t have company – or ever join a mass participation event because friends, family or colleagues invited you to? You’re not alone. Behavioural research shows that training with a loved one or peer taps into both our human desire for approval, and our capacity to influence others.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen investigated whether having an exercise companion increases the amount of exercise we do. The 2016 study reported that finding a new exercise partner did indeed increase the amount of exercise people did. Interestingly, that amount increased even more when the new partner was emotionally supportive.

Don’t underestimate the power of positive emotional support

The research team was interested in what qualities makes a good partner, asking participants to rate how supportive their partners are and what kind of support was most effective. They found that people exercised more when their companion offered emotional support and encouragement, rather than practical support like never missing a session.

Dr Pamela Rackow from the Institute of Applied Health Sciences explains: "Once we found that having a new exercise companion increases frequency, we wanted to find out what quality of support has this effect. Our results showed that the emotional social support from the new sports companion was the most effective. Thus, it is more important to encourage each other than to do the actual activity together."

'Training together taps into our human desire for approval'

This isn’t surprising, says Dr Craig Nossel, because humans are social creatures, and training together taps into our human desire for approval. “Behavioural research shows that we’re all heavily influenced by the behaviours and characteristics of the company we keep.” Acknowledging that the way we behave is strongly affected by those around us can help to harness this knowledge to our benefit. Whether it is exercising more, recycling or eating healthier, it seems we do better if those close to us do too.

Says Nossel, "Working out with a crowd can enhance exercise performance and improve consistency, duration and motivation. For example, you may run faster when moving in a group or attend that extra gym class in the week if you’re meeting your friend there. That’s why we’re so supportive of group events like outdoor mass participation events. Along with increased accountability, exercising with others offers a greater sense of connection and satisfaction."

Reasons to enter a mass run or walk with your exercise buddy

Participating in a race or group event together can serve as powerful motivation to keep going when everyday training gets tough. So, a good way to commit yourself to training with a buddy is by deciding to participate in a future race or fitness event together – something you can both look forward to that serves as a realistic but still challenging goal. Paying an entry fee in advance can also help to make you both feel accountable.

“Two of the biggest obstacles to starting and maintaining an exercise regime are motivation and staying power,” Nossel concludes. “But if the solution could be as simple as finding an exercise partner, there’s no reason not to try it. You may even find yourself deepening your existing relationship with your exercise partner through the shared experience and memories.”

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