Researchers determined that people who trained with a teammate they perceived to be a better performer could potentially quadruple their workout time and intensity.
"People like to exercise with others and make it a social activity" lead researcher Brandon Irwin, a professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University said in a statement. "We found that when you're performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone."
As part of the study, Irwin and team had female college students ride a stationary bike alone in a lab setting for as long as they liked. The group averaged about 10 minutes of riding time. Subsequently, they had the same group exercise again in the lab setting, although this time, members of the group were told they had a partner in another lab, whom they could see on a TV monitor. In fact, the monitor displayed a looping video, not a live feed of another participant. The researchers told the participants that their virtual partners had performed 40 percent better on the initial solitary bike session, giving the impression that the partner was the stronger athlete. In this scenario, participants nearly doubled their bike times -- adding on an average nine minutes, for a total of 19 minutes.
Then, researchers decided to test how well the participants would do if they not only worked out alongside a "better" performer, but also felt as though they were on a team together. The researchers invited the same group back to the lab to work out with the same virtual partner, although this time they explained that the participants were working on a team score with their partners that would be determined by the shortest workout time. In this scenario, participants were under the impression that they were the "weakest link" and that the team score would be determined by that status. In response, the average time among participants increased by an additional two minutes average, for a total 11-minute improvement over solitary exercise.
What's more, Irwin and team found that as time went on, participants continued to increase their efforts. In other words, where at the start of the team exercise, they were able to increase their times by a small increment, by the end, that had improved by a margin of 160 to 200 percent -- or, said another way, by 3.5 to 4 times the initial exercise alone.
The researchers found that the increase did not hold up among those who felt they were partnered with someone of equal ability, suggesting a connection between perceived skill level of one's partner and a desire not to disappoint her.
In other words, working out in tandem with a better athlete could get you moving longer and harder, improving your overall calorie output. And, for the researchers, there are more implications for the future of exercise technology:
"I want to partner people up with actual individuals, not just prerecorded workout partners," Irwin said in a statement. "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."