Virtual Exercise Partners Improve Motivation
April 24, 2014

Researchers Find That Even Virtual Exercise Partners Can Improve Motivation

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While nothing can completely replace the motivation that exercising with another person can provide, new research from Michigan State University suggests that having a virtual workout buddy can also be somewhat effective.

In the study, which appears this month in the Games for Health Journal, professor Deborah Feltz of the MSU kinesiology department and her colleagues set out to test whether or not a software-generated partner could cause people to train harder than if they were working alone (a phenomenon known as the Köhler effect).

“We wanted to demonstrate that something that isn’t real can still motivate people to give greater effort while exercising than if they had to do it by themselves,” Feltz explained in a statement. “Unlike many of the current game designs out there, these results could allow developers to create exercise platforms that incorporate team or partner dynamics that are based on science.”

The researchers used an exercise game called “CyBud-X” that had been specially designed for the study. They recruited 120 college-aged men and women and gave each a different isometric plank exercises to complete with one of three same-sex partners: an actual person, a realistic-looking computer partner, or one that was more animated. The partner’s image was projected onto a screen via webcam during the exercise process.

Feltz and her co-authors said that they observed a significant increase in motivation across all three different partners. Those with human partners held their planks an average of one minute, 20 seconds longer than those with no partner, while those with either of the computer partners experienced an average increase of 33 seconds. The findings could lead to the development of cyber-buddy software based on the theories of sport psychology.

“We know that people tend to show more effort during exercise when there are other partners involved because their performance hinges on how the entire team does,” she said. “The fact that a nonhuman partner can have a similar effect is encouraging.”

In addition to Feltz, other MSU researchers who worked on the project were Brian Winn, an associate professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, associate kinesiology professor Karin Pfeiffer and social science psychology professor Norbert Kerr. The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.