The Best Way To Motivate Someone Isn’t With Words

Do you ever have the urge to tell your work out buddy that’s trying to encourage you with phrases like “keep it up” and “you’ve got this” to shut the you-know-what up?

You would think that having a fitness partner that tries to motivate you with encouraging words would help you work longer and harder.  But, recent research shows that verbal encouragement isn’t all that helpful and may even be de-motivating.

Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology, worked with researchers at Michigan State University on the study “You Can Do It: The Efficacy of Encouragement in Motivating the Weak Link to Exercise Longer During an Online Exercise Video Game” to determine how to increase motivation during physical activity. They learned that individuals do tend to work out longer when they are with a partner that is perceived to be more skilled than they are as long as they keep the verbal cues to a minimum.

Quite please

Less Is More

In a separate study, 115 participants were told to do planks for as long as they could.  One group of participants were told they would be exercising with a partner who was slightly better than them.  The partner was a looped video recording.

The other group was also told they would be exercising with a partner that was slightly better than them.  In this case the partner was also a recording, but for this group the partner provided verbal encouragement.

The researchers were surprised to find that the group that did not receive the verbal motivational cues exercised longer.  They expected the opposite would be true.  The conclusion is that when you are exercising with someone that you know is slightly better than you and they keep verbal encouragement to a minimum you are motivated to work out longer.

“Our research suggests that the best virtual workout partner is someone who is a little better than you and doesn’t encourage you under certain conditions,” Irwin concluded.

The researchers’ best guess for why the results turned out the way they did is that those who received encouragement from a partner perceived to be more skilled may have interpreted the comments as condescending.

Irwin feels that data could provide insight for designing electronic media including successful social and video games.  Ultimately the best virtual work out partner would be someone who was skilled but silent.

What About A Real Life Work Out Partner?

Anyone that works out with a buddy could take a tip from this study and not pour on the “way to gos” and “atta boys or atta girls” too thick. The best motivation is having a workout buddy that’s a mentor that you can strive to be like, but that doesn’t rub it in that you’re the weak link.

Given that the research shows that being too vocal can back fire, even fitness instructors may need to ratchet back their vocal enthusiasm when it comes to pushing people, especially those that are new to class.

What do you think?  Do you work out with a partner that tries to encourage you or are you the motivator?  If you’re trying to do 20 push-ups, how helpful is it to have someone who has easily mastered the 20 in your ear saying, “Come on.  I know you can do this!”?

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