Why Peer Pressure Is Such an Effective Fitness Tool

Apr 19, 2017 at 9:39 a.m. ET
Image: James Porcini/Getty Images

Remember back in high school when succumbing to peer pressure was a bad thing? Well, maybe we were onto something, because it looks like all those times we gave in because “everybody else was doing it,” may now have huge benefits when it comes to our health.

In a study published this week in Nature Communications, researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, analyzed the daily exercise patterns, geographical locations and social networks of more than 1 million people over the course of five years and discovered that when it comes to exercise and motivation, it actually pays to give into peer pressure by comparing ourselves to our friends.

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That’s right, comparing our workout and fitness habits to others actually pushes us to exercise even harder and more often. According to an article in New Yorkmag, scientists looked at more than 1 million people over five years who used fitness wearables like a Fitbit or one of the many running apps available to track fitness levels and progress. They analyzed the effect of being linked with friends via these devices and found that connecting with others (either online or in person) actually pushes us to work harder. In other words, knowing what our friends are up to when it comes to their fitness activities such as running distance and time, actually motivates us to push ourselves more.

So, what gives? Well, exercise, the results showed, is socially contagious. The authors also pointed to the fact that women are influenced only by their female friends, whereas men are affected by the running patterns of both male and female friends. Makes sense when you consider the countless running groups formed by women, for women all over the United States.

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In the write-up on Nature.com, the authors note, “the study offers some of the first hard evidence that health-related habits can spread — and so perhaps could be deliberately seeded and encouraged — by social influence and peer pressure.”

Next time you hit the pavement for a run, it might be best to text a friend ahead of time to find out what their last mile time was — it might just make you run faster.

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