How to Use the Buddy Effect to Achieve Your Health Goals

Your alarm clock goes off for your early a.m. workout. The kids are in bed and you know you have a good two hours before the gym closes. It’s a nice afternoon outside – the perfect day for a walk or set of sprints over your lunch hour. What will you choose? Would it make a difference if you knew someone was waiting there for you? Of course! The truth is, some of us need a little extra motivation, and all of us could use added incentive once in a while. There’s a different level of accountability when you know your best friend will be disappointed (or chew you out later) if you bail on them. (Seriously, who wants to be that person?) Call it social encouragement, interpersonal obligation, or conflict avoidance, but it works. Health strategy of the day: the buddy system.

Research solidly backs up this two-is-better-than-one proposition. People are more likely to stick with a health routine over time and to show up for health related activities, such as fitness classes, if they are part of a formal group or partnership. Heck, one study showed that even a series of computerized calls spurred participants to exercise more than a control group (although not as much as the group that received phone check-ins with actual humans). If a robocall can get these people moving, imagine the incentive of a real, live, flesh and blood person – someone you even like. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to work out with your spouse, know that the buddy system can actually improve your relationship as well as help you reach your health goals.

The fact is, it matters that we feel supported in our health efforts, whether they be a Primal eating plan, a fitness routine, stress management, etc. If we can’t count on significant others to lend that encouragement, however, it’s hardly the end of the social line. The point of the buddy system (or cohort, if you can gather up a Primally minded posse) doesn’t revolve around the individual’s particular role in your life. It’s about the affirmation and accountability – the contact and the check-in. It’s about having someone expecting you at the assigned time for a workout. It’s about sharing in the celebration when you both resist temptation at your respective office holiday parties. It’s about exchanging strategies, pep talks, and well-timed humor.

I believe Paul Reiser once extolled the benefits of dual parenting as having someone to “talk you out of your tree” when caretaking challenges have made you crazy. I think there’s room for some crossover wisdom here. When you make a new health commitment, you’ll at times be processing cravings and inclinations “unreasonable” in the context of your health goals. Maybe on a particularly stressful day, you’ll want to fall back into old, “comforting” habits that undo the good you’ve done the rest of the day. You might hit a new wall as you realize you need to develop new, healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress and busyness of everyday life (or an unsupportive partner at home). That’s where it can help to have a health buddy – an empathetic sounding board and a calm, rational voice to talk you down from whatever tree you’re in. Later, when it’s his/her turn to have a down day, you can return the favor.

Yes, there are some potential downsides to the buddy arrangement. There are the logistics, to be sure. Then there’s the diplomatic dance around each other’s missteps, misgivings, or disparities. One person, for example, might make more progress or make it more quickly than the other. Even if you’re both equally matched and successful, at some point your paths will likely diverge. (It’s all part of owning the healthy living experience and making it your own!) Some personal relationships/health partnerships can take this eventual departure from the original project. Some can’t. Your relationship with this person might end up better for the endeavor, but – then again – it might be compromised by it.

Listen to your gut and think about your history as well as the conflicting interests. If the buddy deal falls through, will it make a key work relationship awkward? Has your relationship with this person been fraught with emotional games or thin-skinned drama? Does this person have a history reliable and consistent enough to make a commitment with? Do you? After all, it’s about your end of the deal as much as it is theirs. Are you up for that level of interpersonal collaboration right now in your life? It’s O.K. to say no. There are other ways to infuse some social support and accountability into your health ventures.

Some of us have close friends or family members who we feel comfortable sharing this journey with. Simultaneously, others choose to forge supportive relationships less entangled in their personal lives. These days, it’s easy to turn to the Internet if you’re looking for running clubs, sports teams, etc. There are health groups and fitness clubs that offer partnership/mentor services as well as personal training options. (If you’re addressing a chronic illness, check out a local support chapter and try to find someone into – or at least open to – your Primal goals.) Also, if you feel you need some deeper emotional work or confidence building to facilitate your health progress, a professional coach might be a good choice.

In a broader scheme, some health insurance plans offer personal online/phone coaching. A few employers actually give you a financial incentive to use the services. (Keep in mind, however, that the guidance you’ll receive won’t be Primally-minded.) If you want accountability and guidance from a more objective or professional collaboration, these might be good options. Alternatively, certain fitness classes at the gym require you to reserve a spot or are small enough that absences are conspicuous. That obligation might be enough for those with a proclivity toward personal diligence and guilt.

And who could forget the best workout partners – Primal man and woman’s best friend? No, seriously. (How many of you are nodding your heads out there?) A University of Missouri study divided participants from an assisted living center into three groups – a control group, a group in which subjects were free to chose (human) friends and spouses to walk with each day and one in which participants walked local shelter dogs daily. The subjects who walked the dogs put the human buddies to shame, hands down. Not only did the dog walkers experience a bigger boost in fitness confidence and balance, they increased their walking speed by a jaw-dropping 28% (compared to 4% in the human buddy group). Even the researchers were astounded. Dog lovers, I think, understand perfectly.

Finally, let us not forget this venerable community of individuals right here in our Primal backyard. Many a mentorship and friendship have been forged here (and even a relationship or two). How about hopping on the forum and putting a call out for a virtual buddy to get you through the holiday obstacle course? I’m quite sure you’ll get a rousing response.

MDA folks, what say you? Do you have a spouse or friend that you’ve relied on to help you achieve your health and fitness goals? Share your thoughts, successes, and suggestions for making the most of the buddy system. Tell us how you’ve made a health partnership work for you. Thanks for reading today.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “How to Use the Buddy Effect to Achieve Your Health Goals”

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  1. “Dog lovers, I think, understand perfectly.”

    Damn right. My whole journey began when I brought home a puppy. From sprinting partner to fellow grass-fed meat eater, having a dog is one of the best investments I have made towards my health.

  2. This is the first time I’ve posted here and it is in support and love of my dog Maggie! Two years ago I started walking her over an hour a day when the weather here in Florida was nice. I haven’t stopped since…she won’t let me. She’s the most reliable work-out partner you could ask for, and the hardest to say no to. I rearrange my life to make sure she gets her hour.

  3. This is the first time I’ve posted here and it is in support and love of my dog Maggie! Two years ago I started walking her over an hour a day when the weather here in Florida was nice. I haven’t stopped since…she won’t let me. She’s the most reliable work-out partner you could ask for, and the hardest to say no to. I rearrange my life to make sure she gets her hour. She loves the primal eating plan as well!

  4. Absolutely agree. This is why I love my crossfit gym. It is a group of people who I know are going to be wondering where I am if I miss a day and if I miss more then one day are gonna start tracking me down to make sure I’m not dead in a ditch (or stuck in a tree!) and hassle me for skipping gym. It’s a very good thing for those days when it’s a bit to hard to get outta bed on time.

    And as for the dog buddy? Hands down it’s good. I can count on my wonderful dog to get me going for at LEAST one quick walk a day and frequently for more. There is NO such thing as spending the entire day inside when the dog wants a walk! Plus she is ALWAYS in the mood and enthusiastic to go anywhere and do anything! (And just for grins I taught her to do burpees too!)

  5. Totally agree with the dog partner being the best. No human is more excited to go out and exercise than your dog, and no dog will let you forget (mine just brought me his leash a few minutes ago!) When we lost our previous dog Otis a couple years ago, I quickly figured out that I *needed* a dog. New dog Barley is an early morning dog (!!!) and is an even better exercise partner!

    1. My dog Wesley is the opposite of a morning dog–the only thing that gets him up is the smell of bacon. But forget that evening walk, and he will stare a hole in my head. He’s totally committed to primal eating, but no fan of broccolini.

  6. Yep, totally agree, but my buddy isn’t of the canine variety, strictly a human buddy.

    We cycled over a 1,000 miles back in June going from one end of our country to the other. We trained together and rode nearly all the route together. Getting him through the final day, on my wheel, after he’d been ill the day before was something very special. Crossing that line was great, and something all the better for sharing 🙂

    Training buddies rock, for sure, but you also need to have your own motivaiton too; sometimes you have to get out there on your own as well.

    I’m currently mentoring my daughter (over the ether!) with her endeavours with Primal eating … it’s really brought us back together (metaphorically speaking) and she’s doing well. Another great sharing experience.

  7. The kind of encouragement and support you get from cats is much more subtle.

  8. My low-level cardio is enjoyed with my dog, rain or shine. He can keep up with me, and keeps me real, If I feel like skipping a training session, a quick nudge and a point to the leash will snap me out of it.

  9. I workout at home because the gym isn’t motivating to me nor do I like to spend my precious time driving to and fro. Working out alone at home can be a hard habit to establish but Twitter is my accountability system and a Twitter friend my buddy – we tweet each other when we’re done. Works great.

  10. Nice one Mark, my old dog Corrie ensures that I at least get out of doors a few times every day. The whole ‘team’ thing kind of left me cold in formative years, so I have a self-coached mindset, but I do love to train with friends when I can. More than that, like Alison, my FB friends are a good source of prompting and keeping-in-touch.

  11. I used to walk a neighbour’s dog when I was a kid, absolutely loved it, everyday I looked forward to it, which is strange as I also had a dog phobia (this was about the only dog I wasn’t afriad of).

    These days I’m not so lucky, I don’t know any of my neighbours and have no idea if they have dogs. Maybe it’s time to get aquinted with my neighbours and find out.

  12. Totally agree about the buddy system.

    That’s one of the best things (in my opinion) about crossfit. It sometimes (at least at our gym) ends up being like a little community. So you know people there and they notice if you’re missing.

    Also, I almost always go with my wife or a good buddy of mine, or both.

    I don’t really like working out alone 🙂

  13. Couldn’t agree more. Without my coworker Andy becoming a workout partner at the gym and Krav Maga practice, I could have never taken off the extra 50 lbs that were weighing me down.

  14. Exercising with other people is pretty much a chick thing, guys don’t do it … heck real men don’t even use a spotter at the gym.

    1. ha ha. yeah who needs a spotter but sometimes the dudes like a belayer, esp. at heights exceeding, say 50 feet. Even when we boulder we like to hang out as a clan and spew beta–the guys too. The guys MOSTLY. I have a great climbing partner, he’s funny, he leads all the sick dangerous routes and I climb much better because of him. He doesn’t cut me any slack…well penalty slack in the rope if I don’t give a climb my all! Nearly all of my friendships center around climbing and mountain biking. My workouts are play due to this–I seriously look forward to going to the climbing gym because of the fun group of people there and when we are outside climbing and biking, that’s the best. My daughter climbs with me too. The camping and the cameraderie are a huge part of the fun.

  15. I’ve found that the more people that find out about the way the I choose to eat and exercise… the more pressure I put on myself to stick with it! It’s been really helpful in my primal journey, even if they aren’t on the journey with me! It keeps my accountable.

  16. If I knew where I could find a workout buddy I would. It is difficult on my own.

    1. Try your local animal shelter. I have a wonderful street mutt that I picked up at an animal shelter in Mexico. He has enough enthusiasm for life for the two of us on days when I might just sit in front of the net watching old tv episodes. He gets me off my rear and out the door and from there I’m OK, I just need that initial push. There’s nothing like big sad doggy eyes for “social pressure” and accountability. “Come on, let’s go for a walk, please? That stupid computer will still be there when we get home.”

  17. Now that my kelpie Tilley is 14 and a half I can finally keep up with her.

  18. Definitely agree with this post. Over a year ago I joined a Crossfit gym and have loved the experience. Group exercise that’s challenging and supportive. Would never have seen these type of results if I exercised by myself.

  19. Definitely. This spring I got a gym membership with my buddy who had been encouraging me to get back in shape for a year. Our goals weren’t the same but having him there to hold me accountable every day kept me super motivated

  20. I logged in to MDA this morning to find some info on how others resist temptations and what practices they’ve found work for them for resisting comfort foods when life gets them down. I found it ironic that as soon as the site popped up there it was staring at me in the face. A buddy. I need a fellow buddy on the same wavelength as me. While reading the information on MDA is helpful, I can’t be online everytime I get into a bind to talk me out of seeking comfort foods that only make me feel worse after eating them both emotionally(guilty and disappointed) and physically(bloated and crampy). I’ve had a stressful week, and indeed threw out my original intention of going primal 100%! I was doing so good and I felt great!!! what happened!?? I let emotional triggers run my life again and I really don’t have a fellow cohurt on the same primal wavelenghth I am on or want to be to help me through those times. So I indulged, even this very morning when a fellow co-worker sent out an email announcing treats in the kitchen; bagels and cream cheese from Panera. Didn’t even think twice about resisting that temptation. Shame on me. If only I had checked here before going in!!

    1. Dana: I agree with Tara that “the more people that find out about the way the I choose to eat and exercise… the more pressure I put on myself to stick with it!” So even if you don’t have a primal buddy to share with, if your co-workers know what you are doing (I say “low-carb, no dairy”) they will be watching you and you’ll be inspired to stick to primal to live up to what you’ve told them. We had a late thanksgiving luncheon at work today and several people were watching to see what I put on my plate (a big pile of salad and dark turkey meat, and a little spoonful of cranberry). For “dessert”, instead of pumpkin pie and sweetened whipped cream I had another slice of turkey with a little more cranberry and some GRAVY (a big treat!).

      1. This is a good idea, Nancy! Thanks! We have our Christmas luncheon in a couple of weeks, so I’ll be putting it to the test.

  21. Sometimes it is true that it is better to have a companion especially like this situation. Like me, I don’t want to go on a jogging alone, also going to a gym. And I’ll recommend to have a Personal Trainer as your best buddy, so that you can have a friend at the same time will help you to stay fit.

  22. I do my training at an aikidodojo together with my husband. It’s not the perfect workout, but the only one I will keep doin year after year. So check off
    – husband to go together with
    – friends whom will miss us if we don’t come
    – and, nowadays, being the trainer ones a week. You do not bail out if you are responsible for everyones trainingsession!

  23. I train with a powerlifting team for just this reason. The social obligation gets me there when my inner chump doesn’t want too.

  24. This is so true. My husband and I started CrossFit together a few weeks ago and having someone to share your experiences with and someone to encourage you when you are down is so important! As a family we realized that the only way for us to all be successful in our health and fitness was if we work together. We will be starting our Primal Blueprint journey together also. I am excited to see the results and I wanted to thank you for all the wonderful info here on your blog! I have been truly inspired!