Why You Should Exercise With Someone Who Can Kick Your Ass (A Little)

Staff Writer
New research reveals a sweet spot for the perfect workout buddy

While heading out for a run or to the gym with someone you know is faster and stronger than you are may seem intimidating, according to one Kansas State University study, that person may be your ideal workout partner if you want to improve—especially if you view your duo as a team.

Researchers examined the exercise intensity of individuals under three circumstances: when exercising alone, alongside a slightly-better-than-you virtual buddy (who participants believed was a real person), and on a team with a slightly-better-than-you virtual buddy (who, again, participants believed was real). In the team trial, participants were told that their effort and ability directly affected the outcome of their buddy’s overall success.

Individuals who exercised as part of a team—especially with that “same” buddy over time—exerted up to 200 percent more effort than they did when exercising alone, and still 160 percent more than when they exercised with a virtual partner to whom they had no connection.

According to Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology and the principle investigator, the team thought that eventually, participants would become downtrodden and give up when consistently exercising with someone who would best them—but that wasn’t the case.

“We wondered how motivated people would be to keep coming back and getting beat again," Irwin said. "But over time, it can be very motivating, as long as the conditions are right."

But don’t sign up for a sub-3 marathon training team if you’ve never run a race, just yet. Irwin stressed that if an exercise partner is exponentially better (or even at the same level), the extra motivation—and effort—disappears.

Taking his results to a new level, Irwin hopes to eventually take his findings online—matching exercisers with a virtual teammate who is also a real, live person. "Similar to matchmaking software for romantic relationships online, individuals from different sides of the country could be matched up based on their fitness goals and levels. Using technology, you could run with someone using your smartphones." 

Now, all Irwin needs to research is how to convince someone who's better than you to take you on as a partner.