“Anything you can do I can do better.” It turns out Annie Oakley’s motto may be the best motivation for pushing ourselves harder during a workout. New research from Michigan State University suggests we perform better on aerobic tasks when exercising with a partnerAerobic exercise is promoted when individual performance affects the group: a test of the Kohler motivation gain effect. Irwin, B.C., Scorniaenchi, J., Kerr, N.L. et al. Kinesiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 2012;44(2):151-9..

The Study

Researchers divided 58 female participants into three groups for a series of studies that took place over six days. The lonely ladies in the first group rode stationary bikes on their own while participants in the second group exercised next to virtual partners (i.e. a fellow rider visible via a videoconference screen). Those in the third group were also assigned virtual partners, except they were told their performance would determine their partner’s performance, too.

Though the participants didn’t know it, the “partners” they were assigned were actually just looped videos of people exercising. In other words, the virtual partner would never be the one to call it quits first. Researchers also fibbed and told participants their mates had lasted a little longer than they had in the pre-trial session.

In every experiment, the women in the third group (who were told that stopping early would hurt their partner’s performance as well) lasted a lot longer on the bikes — about two minutes longer than those in the second group and 10 minutes longer than solo exercisers. Researchers concluded that having even a virtual partner could improve performance in aerobic workouts.

Can We Trust It?

It’s worth noting the only participants in this small study were female undergrads, so it’s not clear if the same findings would apply to everyone. Some people might still prefer working out alone, whether to run at their own pace or to avoid having to chat about the weather.

On the other hand, this research isn’t the first to highlight the potential benefit of sweating with a buddy. Another study from Michigan State University found people paired with slightly superior virtual exercise partners could hold a plank longer than those going it alone. Having a partner can even make us work just a little bit harder when playing exergamesTwo-playered partner exergame for obesity prevention: using discrepancy in players’ abilities as a strategy to motivate physical activity. Feltz, D.L., Irwin, B., Kerr, N. Department of Kinesiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology 2012; 6(4):820-7.. (It’s called “Wii,” not “I,” after all.) Psychologists say we tend to emulate the way people around us are acting, so it makes sense that we’re more motivated to exercise when we think we’re working out next to Usain Bolt.

The Takeaway

A workout buddy — especially one who’s in slightly better shape than we are — can provide the willpower necessary to keep on truckin’ during a tough sweat session. If a partner workout sounds like your thing, consider hitting the gym with that special someone as a power couple or dragging a pal along for some awesome partner exercises.

Do you prefer working out with a buddy or flying solo? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly @ShanaDLebowitz.