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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 15, 2014

Improve Your Workouts with This One Simple Trick

By Mark Sisson
46 Comments

Group WorkoutEvery once in a while I run across a study that makes me laugh even as it makes me think. Such was one in a gaming journal (admittedly unfamiliar territory to me). The study assessed the comparative impact of varying degrees of “human-like, software-generated” workout partners (e.g. “a nearly-human-like, humanoid partner (NHP), a hardly human-like, software-generated partner (HHP),” against one another and a no partner control as well as a genuine hominid presented virtually. The concept made me chuckle as I pictured the potential animation, but the results gave me something to consider. Subjects’ motivation was higher and generally the same in any of the partnered conditions, no matter how “hardly human-like” the partner. Other factors like perceived exertion, enjoyment or self-efficacy were also relatively constant among the partnered scenarios. The only significant difference measured was persistence, where the virtual hominid took top honors. (Grok would be proud – or just wholly befuddled.) The conclusion, as drolly described in the title of the study, was “Cyber buddy is better than no buddy.”

The study got me thinking about the advantage of social support and group exercise. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, working out with other people can offer a unique and heightened euphoria that goes beyond physical activity itself. Beyond the obvious Primal associations, our group fitness endeavors offer us a better endorphin release, resulting in greater pain thresholds and even an oxytocin kickback for bonding with said co-participants. What’s not to love?

While the body of research directly comparing solitary exercise with group workouts isn’t as expansive as it might be, other studies have likewise supported the benefits of “social” fitness in one context or another while simultaneously highlighting the complexity of the social “experience” in exercise. One study, for example, showed that group exercise participants experienced greater calmness than those who exercised alone (with self-reports prior to exercising controlling for initial emotional state). However, the group exercise subjects reported being more tired after exercise, which researchers speculate may come from the “increased competition or workload” in a social workout situation.

In another study, subjects reported lower perceived exertion when exercising in the presence of another person than when exercising alone. In a second experiment, participants who exercised next to someone who gave nonverbal cues suggesting the workout was easy reported less exertion. Cues suggesting the workout was more intensive didn’t appear to have a significant impact on subjects’ sense of their own effort. While no physiological differences were observed, the study experiments do underscore the psychological influences the social factor can have.

On that subject, it appears we don’t need a ton of individual verbal encouragement but may be better motivated by the desire to keep up with a more skilled partner – particularly a more skilled partner we believe is on our team. Subjects dramatically increased their exertion (by 90%!) when told a partner in another lab visible on video (actually just a looped recording) had biked longer than they had. Likewise, when one group of subjects was told the person in the video was on their team competing against others, they again boosted their performance. At first, the increase was modest, but over time (as subjects apparently felt more invested in the contrived team relationship), their exertion rose to 160% greater than a simple partnered group and 200% greater than the solo exercisers.

Finally, it appears that even the gender of a simple observer placed in laboratory conditions can impact perceived exertion. In one of those “duh” findings, males reported a significantly lower perceived exertion when a female observer was present and a higher perceived exertion when the male observer was present. Both measures were compared to a no-observer control. When we up the ante and look at actual enjoyment, the picture gets a little fuzzy. In one study, both men and women enjoyed exercise less when an “attractive” female (no, the researchers didn’t do the same experiment with an attractive male – I’m just the messenger) was working out next to them than they did working out alone.

Gender and attraction aside, the social exercise advantage as a whole could be seen as either a subset of social support – or perhaps an extension of it. Countless studies have demonstrated the value of supportive relationships in exercise adherence, but the “support” can vary substantially. Consider the supportive spouse who covers extra home duties while you fit in your daily training or the people who comment on your FB gym “check-ins” or a close friend telling you she’s inspired by and proud of your fitness commitment. How about the colleagues at work who you see at the office gym during your lunch hour workouts – the ones who always say hi and offer encouraging words. You bond a bit over the common dedication but don’t really exercise together. Then there are the people who you consider “your people” at the gym. Maybe you lift together or do a class or running club together. Maybe they’re a weekly walking partner or group. You’re all in the same boat (or maybe even officially a team) working your way toward whatever goal – whether it be weight loss or competition level performance. How would you assess the role or influence of these different supports in your fitness life?

Increasingly, there’s an interest in capitalizing on the influence of others. One app company is even marketing the concept of a “fitness tribe,” in which two or more people buddy up (on the app or in the real world) to share their health commitments and the daily actions that get them there. The concept is certainly a practical one, and I happen to believe that there’s something to virtual community when it can supplement our physical social networks and when it allows us to connect with those who share specific interests (e.g. Primal living). While a virtual “tribe” may not offer all the advantages of an in-person experience, the company’s research suggests those who “team up” with others benefit from making their endeavor “social” instead of “solo” by the regular encouragement in their virtual fitness circle and by its frequent extension to real life contact with workout dates and fitness event participation. Many MDA folks have been connecting in these ways for years, and I hear regularly from readers who have gone from signing up for the newsletter to attending PrimalCon and organizing Primal Meetups in their localities for everything from workouts and potlucks. I think this extension into the real physical realm can be key for many people. All this talk of virtual and networked support aside, there’s something to the concrete presence of another person there on the track, gym floor or hiking trail. We’re wired to respond to the physical nuances of another person’s presence even though we respond to virtual (or even computer-generated) versions of social workouts. If nothing else, I always suggest not settling for something lesser when the something better is wholly available. Sometimes the questions is simply, “Why compromise?”

All this raises the question of gradation. What social fitness experiences are the best in terms of psychological support or motivational influence? It’s something that we probably have to ascertain individually, but some experts suggest the more the group has in common in terms of values (Primal, anyone?) and the more substantial their individual investments, the more supportive and beneficial the group environment. In other words, going once to a drop-in fitness class isn’t the same as working out regularly with the same group of people in a team or club setting.

Finally, there’s the question of whether working out in a group is really worth it for those who genuinely prefer the solo time. For many people, their fitness hours are also their only (or at least most valuable) solitary hours. Some of us crave the solitude. Working out offers us needed time to be alone with our thoughts or without any stimulation, save the input of our muscles and our favorite playlists or park setting. To those who would argue that social fitness is an exercise in frustration more than anything else, I’d say there are countless ways to fill the social well. Social or solo, your body will thank you for it.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your exercise preference? Do you experience an added benefit of working out with others? Offer your feedback, and have a good end to the week!

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46 Comments on "Improve Your Workouts with This One Simple Trick"

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Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
2 years 4 months ago

“Subjects dramatically increased their exertion (by 90%!) when told a partner in another lab visible on video (actually just a looped recording) had biked longer than they had.”

Isn’t the brain amazing? It gets us to react to competition, whether real or a placebo. We’ve got the Matrix right between our ears!

Now all we need to do is figure out how to make the rest of the world think they’re in competition with someone, and they (hopefully) will increase THEIR exertion by 90%.

Sebastijan Veselic
2 years 4 months ago
In psychology, this has been long known. There is one interesting caveat here that people are not aware though. When people do different cognitive exercises; be it heavy to solve or easy to solve, the presence of a public has different effects on the performance of a person. This is also known as cognitive load and the audience effect, if someone wishes to wiki it. Say someone has to solve rather easy exercises (solving easy equations etc.) in that case a presence of other people will enhance someone’s performance. In the case of complex exercises (solving quantum mechanics equations) the… Read more »
LCF
LCF
2 years 4 months ago
i must be different… I do much better when I workout by myself. In 2008 (I am 5ft 9)was 190 lbs and shaped like a pear).. and 45 yrs old.. i happened to see myself in the mirror and wondered what I had done.. I was always slim most of my life.. and i felt like i still was.. but the mirror had betrayed my mind.. I decided I needed to change.. I had a gym membership but never went.. I started slow just doing enough to work up a sweat with strength training.. went through the entire book ..… Read more »
LCF
LCF
2 years 4 months ago

165 lbs now.. for the last year..

J.Sark
J.Sark
2 years 4 months ago

I have just started going to sprint with a buddy and it’s incredible how being with somebody can push you to do your best; he is still way fitter than I am, but it’s a huge motivation

C L Deards
2 years 4 months ago
Having three young children I can relate to wanting to do exercise alone. I feel that way. It’s my moments of solitude, like the writing I do every morning. I have done cycling classes before and know that I do exert myself more in the presence of others, but currently I like the solitude, and getting to the gym is not possible at this time in my life. I like my solo kettlebell workouts, and starting this weekend I am going to add a weekly cycling sprint. This article feeds into other articles where the mind shows what kind of… Read more »
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
2 years 4 months ago

Imagine the NHP as an australopithecus that speaks like HAL 9000.

gold fish
gold fish
2 years 4 months ago

Imagine an MDA post without a comment from PBR. Now that would be weird!

Storm
Storm
2 years 4 months ago

I’m sorry Ron, I’m afriad I can’t do that – This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Rick
Rick
2 years 4 months ago

This ties in well with yesterday’s post. This weekend I’m going to get a dozen chocolate chip cookies, a tall glass of cold milk, and log in to a good MMORPG.

Natalia
Natalia
2 years 4 months ago
I wonder what the results would show if the subjects were categorized as introverts or extraverts. Introverts drain their energy in social situations, whereas extraverts gain energy. I wonder if extraverts would gain more from this than introverts–it sounds exhausting to have to be “on” for an hour or so, physically and socially at the same time. Since I’ve been visiting my parents though, I’ve noticed that an hour flies by when I’m out walking with my mom. The other day, we took my grandma on a two hour wheelchair ride through the park up some pretty steep hills, and… Read more »
George
George
2 years 4 months ago
I work from a home office, so I have a nice block of time in the middle of my days (lunch break) available for exercise. I started doing P90X way back in 2008. I did the full program, 70-90 minutes per day, 6 days per week. I’d get to the end after 90 days, then take a week off and start over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I did that for a couple of years. Then in 2010 I found MDA and read The Primal Blueprint. Changing my diet and other aspects of my lifestyle immediately gave me great results, and… Read more »
George
George
2 years 4 months ago

Also, I know that Mark is friends with Tony Horton. Perhaps Mark can chime in with a comment on where he feels Tony might rate on the “nearly human-like humanoid partner” scale…

Pdawg
Pdawg
2 years 4 months ago

That is too funny. I to started p90x in 2009. I still do the workouts though not the whole plan. I love it. My husband is getting ready to order p90x 3. I didn’t like 2 as much as the original. I have changed up my workouts and my eating since I finished the original, but I still love the workouts. I do sprints now and run some and way more weight now. Tony and mark should definitely collaborate!!!

KJames
KJames
2 years 4 months ago

Mark? As another 3-year p90x and p90x2er, I’d like to hear it too.

LCF
LCF
2 years 4 months ago

EXACTLY GEORGE.. I don’t even use a video… I just thrive on doing it ALONE.. , But I understand exactly what you are talking about.

Charlie
Charlie
2 years 4 months ago

As a High School Health and PE Teacher who works out regularly with my 1st block students everyday, I know that I will slack come this Summer in both effort(intensity) and consistency when I will be without the motivation of my students by my side! Of course, so will most of my students!

Naomi
2 years 4 months ago

I like this! I know that when I had a gym membership, I tended to push harder when around others. I also run faster when I run with my husband. 🙂

Ian Connel
Ian Connel
2 years 4 months ago

This is why I love martial arts training – you need partners! But I also love some solo sprints late at night, or in a thunderstorm.

Nicole
Nicole
2 years 4 months ago

I typically work out alone in a crowded gym, ear buds in because the music they play is wretched.

But on the weekends when my husband and I go to the gym, it’s a totally different, fun, productive, and enjoyable experience. We are working out for our health, but also for each other’s benefit! It’s fun watching and helping one another (though as a spotter I am severely limited for him)!

Stephen
2 years 4 months ago

This concept makes a lot of sense, but I really do enjoy my alone time. I’m definitely an introvert and nothing bothers me more than someone approaching me in the gym to “help” me or just chat. My favorite activity is definitely a solo walk / jog / hike.

Michele
2 years 4 months ago

I have 3 young kids so my morning runs/workouts are valuable alone time. I’m also mainly introverted so I feel most energized by solo workouts. But, when in a social environment I push myself more so I benefit the most by throwing in a social workout once a week or so. Definitely need to push myself to make that happen though.

Louise
Louise
2 years 4 months ago
I so wish that specialty gyms were more affordable for this reason (or set up to be subsidized by health insurance at least). In my experience, activities like martial arts and kickboxing are inherently more social and – at least for me – much more likely to be sustainable because of this. I think another dimension of this is that social exercise tends to take on more of a hobby role in one’s life – you’re cultivating some skill, getting better at it, challenging your brain in a way that the treadmill will never ever do. I’m honestly really stuck… Read more »
Nocona
Nocona
2 years 4 months ago

Interesting. I always preferred team sports like softball and basketball. I always performed better with others watching. Maybe it’s fear of failure in others eyes. I’m sure my workouts are better in team situations.

Abijah L.
Abijah L.
2 years 4 months ago

My favorite study paired nursing home residents with either a human partner or a partner from the local pound for daily walks. The latter group increased their walking speed (a marker of fitness in the elderly) by 25% which is exceptionally good, the former group showed no improvement. My hypothesis is that one group was more likely to stop for a coffee while the other group stopped only for brief butt sniffing and an occasional pee.

Diane
Diane
2 years 4 months ago
This is why Sierra Club hikes are so good. Usually you’d expect people who join the hikes to have similar views on things, which they sometimes do, but not always, but there’s usually at least the hiking in common. The fun thing is that you get people of all ages and abilities. It’s very inspiring to hike with some 80-year old guy with legs like a 22-year old who likes to go sky diving in his free time. If he can do all that, there’s no reason I need to slow down. It’s also fun to hike with a bunch… Read more »
Lee Hardee
Lee Hardee
2 years 4 months ago
For several years, I worked out alone, and I thought I was doing pretty well. It definitely required discipline, but I made decent gains in my fitness (especially with help from sites like MDA). However, my eyes were opened to the power of working out in a group when I started exercising with a free men’s workout group in Charlotte (F3 Nation) last summer. A lot of the things that this article hit on were immediately apparent. My intensity went up in the presence of others, and I was pushed like never before by working out with people faster and… Read more »
BFBVince
2 years 4 months ago

I always attempt PRs when in a group setting. I wish it wasn’t this way but it really is more motivating to push more weight when around others ad competing.

Dr. Anthony Gustin
2 years 4 months ago

Accountability, coaching, motivation – always better!

Marianne
Marianne
2 years 4 months ago

Group exercise has been great for me. I go to a “boot camp” style outdoor workout three to four times a week and really like it. I can’t imagine ever regularly doing that kind of exertion all on my own. On the other hand, I also love, love, love my solo walks. Those I do on my own schedule, and they are my re-charge periods.

So, personally, I get different things from group and from solo exercise–but all good!

PatrickP
PatrickP
2 years 4 months ago

I hate group exercise. It’s one of the reasons I gave up on Crossfit. I don’t need to relive middle school anxiety three times a week. Also, with groups there always that guy who thinks it’s a competition. He’s often the one who works out shirtless.

LibraryCarrie
LibraryCarrie
2 years 4 months ago

As soon as I started reading this post, I knew Brandon Irwin’s research had to get a mention! If anyone is interested in reading more of his papers on solo vs. partner exercise and group motivation, we archive them at: http://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/browse?value=Irwin%2C+Brandon+C.&type=author

(Full disclosure, I work in the K-State University library and have the super-fun job of uploading all these things. If you go read the articles, not only do you bump up his numbers but you give my job a purpose!)

Erica Chavez
Erica Chavez
2 years 4 months ago

I love crossfit and don’t mind group exercise. The people that go are great and encourage me to finish, but I can definitely understand what Patrick P is saying. Some people are always in competition with one another.

Vince G
Vince G
2 years 4 months ago

I think that largely depends on the Box you attend. I have been to several and have been lucky, as each place had a wonderful group of people who were nothing short of accepting and encouraging. But, as in all things, I am sure there are a few who “spoil the bunch”. For the most part, however, I believe CrossFit is a PERFECT example of the above mentality. Group struggles and achievements are fun and plentiful in CF. Sux for the guy above who had a bad experience.

rob
rob
2 years 4 months ago

I can see myself going above 75% max. heart rate too often training with other people. 🙂

johnnyv
johnnyv
2 years 4 months ago

Much more motivated to complete all heavy squat reps and sets when women are on the treadmills facing the squat cage lol.

JoeBrewer
JoeBrewer
2 years 4 months ago

And here I thought there was something wrong with my chin-up bar in the basement. I can never do as many on it as I can in the gym. Now it makes sense.

2Rae
2Rae
2 years 4 months ago
I like working out with others in the room. Helps me to do a full workout and push myself to where I need to be. If I’m by myself I can talk myself into doing a “good enough” workout. I’m not a person who cares to chat while I’m walking, climbing stairs or doing weights, however, I do like to interact with others here and there during the workout. I would like to find someone in my area to workout at the same time in my area at about 4:30 AM since that’s the time I can do it, am… Read more »
heather
heather
2 years 4 months ago

Thanks for this article! It was a very interesting read. I have been doing crossfit at home for about 8 months. My husband is a former personal trainer so he has set up a nice space for us with all the essentials. We don’t work out together, though – for us this serves as much-needed solitary time. However, I often wonder how much faster I would progress doing crossfit in a group setting. I have also read a lot about the various positive benefits of the box communities. I’m an introvert and a homebody so I’m really on the fence.

2Rae
2Rae
2 years 4 months ago

Try it Heather. Sometimes just seeing others and their progress creates more motivation in yourself. If you don’t like it, well you know what to do. 🙂

Monk
Monk
2 years 4 months ago
I knew there was something to it! I have long had the experience that I can exert myself more on the treadmill or elliptical if I’m watching women’s sports on TV (Soccer is best, followed by track and field, gymnastics and WNBA). The way I’ve explained it in my head is that, if I’m on the field with a bunch of guys, I don’t really mind if I’m the weakest and the slowest. But if I’m on the field with a bunch of girls, I really don’t want to be slower or have less endurance than average! My wife thinks… Read more »
Claudia Lette
2 years 4 months ago

I guess each person reacts different. I like to work out alone. I believe the increased concentration surpasses the “group thing”. But, that’s me.

On the other topic: I don’t think technology replaces human contact. Today we rely too much on technology and keep using it to replace human interaction.

Go to a gym and find real buddies!

Susan Slattery
2 years 4 months ago
I am plenty motivated to work out alone. I can push myself harder than anyone else could motivate me too. And working out alone means finding my own boundaries, not pushing past them to injury. I spent years in yoga trying to do deeper backbends than the next gal… it just doesn’t work for me. Plus, many injuries. Oh, and injuries when I ran competitively too. Some of my friends don’t understand my current lack of competitiveness. “What are you doing it for?” Um… because it’s my hobby? Because I like it? Because it’s like brushing my teeth? The way… Read more »
victor
victor
2 years 4 months ago

On the weekends I go on walks with my wife which are relaxing and enjoyable. The rest of the time people just get in the way and I’m at my very best working out alone. If you need someone else to train with and thus motivate you then you’re gonna have problems down the road. I’m sorry but I don’t need an extrovert telling me I’m better off being someone I am not. I’m all about the quick hard workout and on to the rest of my day

maddieaddie
maddieaddie
2 years 4 months ago

I’ve been using an app called Zombies Run 5K, and it’s awesome. I could never get myself to workout consistently, but CrossFit was too much of a beatdown. Now I can’t wait for my next run! Two people back at the base are talking to me and telling me when to run or walk and when the run is over. There’s a developing story line, oh, and the occasional zombie. I wish there was a Zombies Bodyweight or some such thing. Kickstarter anyone?

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
2 years 3 months ago
Maybe I should read full articles before commenting. However, I have so many posts to catch up on (like 50) and so much to do… Maybe some of us should watch Mark’s promotional videos during our workouts. They’re pretty peppy, including fast-paced stereotypical tribal beat music, shots of impressive physical feats like jumping onto a slack-line, and repetitive gratuitous, totally unabashedly intentional muscle shots that make you go “whaaat” and “wow” and so on. It’s like a commercial for 300. That’s not just teasing, it’s a sincere review. During unstructured workouts when I lived in a house with a computer… Read more »
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