It’s no secret that working out with a partner has numerous benefits. From holding you accountable to showing up at the gym to making sure you don’t slack off during leg day, our workout pals keep us honest in more ways than one. But what if your partner has a jam-packed schedule and can’t meet up? Or you just don’t have access to a gym? Turns out, a virtual partner could be just as good (or even better!) than your IRL buds.
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Why Online Workout Buddies Might Be Your Secret to Success
“Exercisers with online fitness buddies worked out 1.6 more times per week.”
Sure, you can’t get a physical high-five from an online workout partner, but they could motivate you to lace up your sneakers in the first place. In one recent study, a third of the participants were placed in a social network of six peers and were emailed each time another person in the group worked out. Another third was emailed motivational messages, and a final third control group committed to fitness without any support. The result: Those matched with online workout buddies exercised 1.6 more times per week compared to those in the control group who had no idea if other people were sweating it out or slacking off.
But that’s not all. Virtual pals could give you the boost you need if you’re looking to shed a few pounds, too. A study from Northwestern University found that online dieters who were highly active on CalorieKing.com (an online weight loss platform) lost more bodyweight than dieters who were quieter online.
“Based on what I’ve seen before, having online support groups will improve performance because you feel accountable to others and supported by others,” says Anita Blanchard, an associate professor of Psychology and Organization Science at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Blanchard has studied online networks of triathletes and notes that these groups are also helpful because they promote feelings of solidarity. “You’d think [these communities] would be an opportunity to brag, but a lot of people would complain about their performance,” says Blanchard. The athletes were struggling, and still felt supported by peers.
The Science of Finding the Perfect Workout Partner
So what’s the best way to connect with fitness-minded buddies? It depends on your goals, says Blanchard. The key: Finding a community (or just one person) that shares a similar goal, be it completing a marathon, lifting more weights or simply working out more consistently. Blanchard uses RunKeeper, a run tracker app, to stay in touch with her own running buddies.
“Your optimal workout buddy is a partner who’s 15 to 40 percent better than you.”
Don’t be intimidated if your new online pals seem a bit more, err, experienced than you, either. Your optimal workout buddy (in real life and online) is a partner who’s 15 to 40 percent better than you, fitness-wise, says Deborah Feltz, a sports and exercise physiologist and professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University. (Fun fact: Feltz is currently developing computer-generated workout buddies to help keep astronauts in shape while they’re in outer space!)
It might seem counterintuitive to look for a workout partner who could crush you in a push-up competition, but when we compare our exercise performance to others, we often set higher goals for ourselves, Feltz explains. Remember: Your pals should be moderately better than you (so stay out of those chat rooms designed for Olympians!). If there is a large difference in ability, you might be more likely to give up and quit. (This explains why we’re more likely to get competitive with the average runner on the treadmill next to us but not necessarily the speediest athlete in our row.)
The Bottom Line
Whether they’re helping us slim down, exercise more frequently or even squeeze in an extra rep, finding a community of virtual cheerleaders really can help you set yourself up for success. Science agrees. And it’s all just a click away.