The Buddy System When Exercising

by Matt Weik

Generally, when people work in pairs, things get accomplished much faster. The old saying, “two heads are better than one” comes to mind. So how does that translate when it comes to exercise? Do we need a buddy system in order to stay on track or is it unnecessary? Or is it simply a way to keep beginners coming back to the gym? Research is now shedding some light on the topic.

Workout partner or flying solo?

If you’re like me, I’m the type of person who likes to workout alone. I don’t want to focus on anyone other than myself and hitting my workout as hard as possible. My workout is my time to be selfish—it’s all about me. Could I use a spotter every once in a while, and ask for assistance? Sure, but I don’t need them there by my side the whole workout in order to make it worthwhile or just to get me to the gym in the first place. I have a passion for fitness so I might be the minority here when it comes to workout partners. Every once in a while, it is nice to workout with a friend and push each other but that doesn’t truly give me a better workout than if I was alone.

Yet on the flip side, there are people out there who need a workout partner in order to stay on track. It could be for motivational reasons, strength/spotting reasons, accountability reasons—the list goes on and on. But now research is actually backing the buddy system, at least for some people.

What’s the research showing?

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen gathered data while they were at the University of Zurich. What they did was gather up some participants for the study who were already actively working out. They asked half of the participants to follow their normal workout program by themselves and then asked the other half of the participants to go find a workout partner to hit the gym with them.

One researcher said, “The idea of this study was to test in a very natural setting what is happening when two people get together with the aim to exercise more. I had read motivation tips in a leaflet that suggested that having an exercise companion would help me to exercise more but I wanted to know if this was true. This study is unique in that it reflects natural life relatively well because when you decide to exercise with a friend—you ask someone in your normal social network regardless of whether they fit certain criteria or not.”

What’s the reason people work out more when training with a partner?

After the study was finished, researchers found that the group that had a workout partner exercised more than the individuals who worked out by themselves. To gather more data from the partner group, researchers asked each of the workout partners what they were looking for during their workout sessions from their “buddy”. The researchers divided the support system into two categories—instrumental and emotional. While some would think that the instrumental piece was most important because it reminded the individuals that there is someone at the gym waiting to workout and that they needed to be there (you can’t bail on your bro, right?). That being said, it wasn’t found to be the case. The majority of the participants mentioned that it was the emotional support and encouragement that the workout partner gave that made them adhere to exercising more. But how much more? And how long did the participants continue to work out with a partner? This put a few questions in my head that I’ll cover in the next section.

When comparing the data following the study, one researcher mentioned, “Once we found that having a new exercise companion increases exercise frequency we wanted to find out why this is beneficial and what quality of support they offer that has this effect. Our results showed that the emotional social support from the new sports companion was the most effective. Thus, it is more important to encourage each other than doing the actual activity together.”

Final thoughts and questions

This study raises a question that still seems to be unknown. And that question is at what point is having a workout partner the most beneficial? Were the participants all fairly new to exercise so by having a workout partner it allowed them to adhere and push harder? Or does this ring true for everyone no matter how long someone has been actively exercising? Does the research truly show that in order to truly get behind an exercise program everyone needs a workout partner? More research needs to be done to answer some of these questions and see if all of us should jump on the buddy bandwagon and start working out with a partner each workout or if the results fade after time and eventually everyone ends up working out alone.

Pamela Rackow, Urte Scholz, Rainer Hornung. Received social support and exercising: An intervention study to test the enabling hypothesis. British Journal of Health Psychology, 2015; 20 (4): 763 DOI: 10.1111/bjhp.12139

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