Feeling unmotivated? Get competitive

cartoon of an apple and an orange, with eyes and wearing boxing gloves, looking like they'e in a fight, caption: healthy competition.This morning I was listening to the radio and I heard an interview with a researcher from UC Davis, Dr. Jingwen Zhang, talking about a study she led about social media and exercise.

This piqued my interest because I and lots of my friends on social media like to post about our athletic adventures. This is especially the case when there’s a major event, but I have some friends who like to post about almost every workout.  It usually gets them lots of “likes” or “wows,” and in general I can attest that it generates that certain kind of support that only social media can give (sort of like the Facebook birthday party — low effort, high return).

The study found, though, that not all uses of social media are equal. Done right, it’s awesome. Done wrong, it actually saps motivation. Here’s what the researchers did:

[They] recruited 790 members of the Penn community (with an average age of 25) to enroll in an 11-week exercise program coined ‘PennShape.’ Everyone’s participation in various activities—ranging from spin classes, jogging, yoga, and weightlifting—was managed and monitored through an interactive website the researchers built from scratch.

Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers then divided people into four groups to monitor how various types of social networks and sources of motivation impacted their exercise behaviors. The four groups consisted of individual competition, team competition, team support, and a control group that did not have support or competition.

In an unexpected twist, the researchers found that giving people too much support via social media often sabotaged their enthusiasm and determination to be more active.

They found that:

Overwhelmingly, competition motivated participants to do the most exercise every week by creating an aspirational mindset. In fact, attendance rates were 90 percent higher in the competitive groups than in the control group. Analysis of the study data showed that both team and individual competition drove students to work out at approximately the same rate.

I was on a team this summer for the Global Corporate Challenge (check it out here) and things got real old, real fast for several of my team members. So clearly the competitive aspect doesn’t motivate everyone. And when they lost interest,  I lost interest.

Now maybe this helps to confirm the findings in the sense that once I could see (through social media) that our team was way out of contention for even a respectably middle of the road standing, I kind of lost interest. I mean, it was all well and good to count steps and try to outdo my previous personal best etc. But that sort of motivation only gets you (well, me) so far. I mean, this thing lasted 100 days. 100 days!

According to the study:

Competition appears to trigger a ratcheting-up of physical activity levels that creates an upward spiral within an entire peer group, according to the researchers. Within a competitive framework, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else and creates a contagious chain reaction marked by increased levels of physical activity for the entire group.

I definitely saw this with some people on more competitive teams. I had co-workers on a different team who would be out there running at noon then on to spin class after work before riding their bike home. I did see that ratcheting up effect. Even for me for the first two thirds of the 100 days I started to walk to work (that’s 10K round trip) instead of ride my bike because it clocked more steps. I rarely missed an early morning swim because the metres in the pool cashed out big-time when converted into steps.

But like I said, once our team fell out of contention for a strong finish, it got harder to care. Maybe this sort of confirms what they found when the “element of competition” was lacking:

Conversely, too much social networking without a competitive element often demotivated individuals, which trickled down to take the wind out of the sails for the entire group. For example, the researchers found that if one person in a ‘supportive group’ stopped exercising, it created a domino effect in the form of an unspoken cue to cohorts that it was OK for others within that social network to stop exercising, too.

In general I’m not super competitive. Well, I am a bit but I don’t feel good when I compete because I never really do well in things against other people. And if one reason to compete is to try to be better than everyone, then it’s demoralizing not to excel. Way back in the early days I wrote about competition and feminist values, discussing the idea of healthy competition.

There I mentioned a Chris Evert quote, and I still like it a lot:

“If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.

How do you feel about competition? Are you more likely to do something if you’re competing with others? Does sharing on social media in a competitive environment (like some sort of “challenge”) motivate you?




2 thoughts on “Feeling unmotivated? Get competitive

  1. I value social fitness and find it hard to say no when a friend has a crazy idea. I follow (and contribute to) several swimming groups on FB that have encouraged me to try cold water and longer distance open water swimming with some local friends. I also track my distance through Master’s Swimming Canada’s distance challenge. I can also check on-line to see who is doing really well each month. And maintaining my spot in the lane at swim practice with my club is both fun and plenty competitive for me, though I do occasionally sign up for a local meet to see how much better (or worse) my times have gotten from previous years.

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