May 25, 2012 at 3:46 PM ET
Can't find a gym buddy? Don't sweat it — new research shows that even a virtual exercise partner might boost your motivation to exercise.
Researchers found that women who biked alone experienced a decline in motivation over time, whereas those partnered with a virtual friend had no decrease in motivation.
Additionally, women without partners biked for an average of 11 minutes, while women with virtual partners biked for 20 minutes. Women who cycled in a group and also had a virtual friend biked for 22 minutes.
This increase "is a substantial gain for those trying to increase their physical activity," said study researcher Brandon Irwin, a doctoral student at Michigan State University.
Women who biked alongside a "virtually present" exercise partner were told their partners were biking at the same time they were, on a similar bike in another location. But in fact, the virtual friend was a recording of someone going just slightly faster than the individual.
The findings suggest that virtual workout partners could motivate people to meet their exercise goals, the researchers said.
The 58 women in the study were recruited from MSU's physical activity courses. The researchers divided the women into three groups — one group exercised alone, while a second group exercised with virtual partners. The third group exercised together, and each woman was also paired with a virtual friend. Researchers recorded data over six exercise sessions.
Studies have shown that working out in groups yields longer participation; the researchers said they wanted to see if the same logic applied when the "group" was virtual. The results suggested that a virtual group may be effective at persuading people to keep going.
The study was published online recently in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters.