Running is contagious? It depends on who and where and when you are

There’s a new study out in Nature this week reporting the results of tracking 1.1 million runners who ran a total of 350km over five years and used an app that tracked their runs and social network ties to other networked runners.  They made the following conclusions:

1) exercise is socially contagious and … its contagiousness varies with the relative activity of and gender relationships between friends.

2) Less active runners [their activities]influence more active runners[to do physical activity], but not the reverse.

3) Both men and women influence men, while only women influence other women.

This is interesting.

For today, I’m just going to talk about 2).  3) is very interesting as well, and I will blog about it in the next week or so.

The article points out a real asymmetry in influence patterns between consistent vs. inconsistent  and also more active vs. less active runners.  Scientists (and philosophers who pay attention to science) love asymmetry.  Why?  Because it points to something complex or unexpected that’s happening.  Or it shines light on some phenomenon that spurs us to do more work or try to better understand it.

You might think, if I’m using a fitness app (the researchers won’t say which one they partnered with), and trying to develop as a consistent runner, that being networked with a bunch of other people who run regularly would motivate me to lace up my shoes and start pounding the pavement.  According to the article, that’s not the case.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  If my fitness app social network friend X (seasoned runner) sees that I (newbie runner) got out there and ran when it was raining and chilly, that influenced X to get out there, too.  But not the other way around.  Here’s the way the researchers put it:

Comparisons to those ahead of us may motivate our own self-improvement, while comparisons to those behind us may create ‘competitive behaviour to protect one’s superiority’… Our findings are consistent with both arguments, but the effects are much larger for downward comparisons than for upward comparisons.

That is, the competitive urge with those less active than I am is stronger than the motivational urge to keep up with/approach those more active than I am.

For those of you who want the numbers, here they are:

Suppose, for example, that a runner (A) usually runs 6 km at a pace of 7 min km−1 (0.143 km min−1) and their friend (B) usually runs 6 km at a pace of 8 min km−1 (0.125 km min−1). An extra kilometre run by B (an increase from 6 to 7 km) causes A to increase their running distance by 0.3 km (from 6 to 6.3 km). Also, a 0.01 km min−1 increase in runner B’s pace (from 0.125 to 0.135 km min−1) causes runner A to increase their pace by 0.003 km min−1 (from 0.143 to 0.146 km min−1).

As a long-time active person, this seems both right and wrong.  Having riding and paddling and yoga partners is, for me, key to maintaining and improving on regular exercise habits.  However, when I see myself as not like my more active friends (Steph, I’m talking about you!),  their (exhausting-sounding to me) activity regimens don’t influence me to join in.

In 2005, I bought my first real road bike, encouraged by my bike racer friend Rachel (thanks, again, Rachel!). who rode with me, introduced me to groups of cyclists, and offered all kinds of help and support.  I developed a real-life cohort of cyclist friends, with whom I would ride and also do other social activities.  Many of these folks have become dear friends and the core of my social life/family of choice.

The past couple of years I’ve been much less active.  My relationship ended and that was a major loss.  For whatever reasons, I just couldn’t see my way clear to getting back out on the bike.  My active friends stayed with me, luring/bribing/tricking/dragging me out there (yes, I mean you, Janet).  And it’s always fun (well, mostly) to move around and be active with my friends.

However, attempts by my friends and by me to motivate myself to rejoin them in their habits haven’t been so successful.  I wanted to do the PWA ride with Samantha and the other Fit is a Feminist Issue bloggers and friends last summer, but didn’t end up getting myself trained (and had some knee problems that I didn’t address).  I’ve canceled on a bunch of other planned activities as well.

So from my perspective, having a social network of more active folks around is not the solution for kick-starting or restarting physical activity habits.

For philosophers, we might say this is a necessary but not sufficient condition.  That means that without my social network of active friends I might never get out there, but having them there doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be active, too.

I’m happy to report that it seems to me as if my activity levels and satisfaction are steadily increasing these days.  I think I’m finally recovering/bouncing back/getting back in the saddle (literally) again.  What’s the cause?  Probably a bunch of things.  Can I tell you exactly what things and how much they’ve influenced me?  Nope.

Note:  In 2016, the McArthur Foundation (the people who fund those “genius” grants) announced that they were going to fund a $100 million grant for one group to solve a BIG social problem. One of the submissions was from a group that’s trying to crack the problem of behavior change, including how to change our health-related habits.  Read more about it here. I wish them lots of luck.

I’ll end here with a question:  how do you think your social connections with more and less active people affect you?  Are you looking for motivation?  Does competition get you moving?  What about those Strava QOMs or other app personal bests?  I’d love to hear your stories.




7 thoughts on “Running is contagious? It depends on who and where and when you are

  1. As a frequent gym-goer and keen runner I agree to a point that other people encourage me to get out there and exercise. I think you have to be at a similar level of fitness though. Seeing someone had run 30k wouldn’t inspire me to go and run 30k and it’s easier to compare your times to others over similar distances. I also think it depends on your personality type. I am quite competitive and I like to challenge myself although not to ‘beat’ others but to better myself.

  2. What a fascinating finding! Upon reflection it makes sense that people wouldn’t want to be “outdone” by those they see as less accomplished. So it’s that competitive, ego-driven motivation rearing its head. I don’t find I do that. In my case I’ve worked hard to be motivated by something else altogether: fun. I’m much more likely to get out with a group or. Second: accountability. If I have someone to check in with (like Anita), I’m more likely to do it. Great post! Thanks!

  3. I hope you get back in more cycling on a regular basis. I know that you love your folding bike. 🙂

    Having a bike that fits me, that isn’t heavy and meets my needs, is very key to get me going on a regular basis. Then wide range of different clothing that adapts to Canadian weather which can be fickle. Also safe, comfortable bike routes for daily riding where I can devise short or longer routes with different switch points for different scenery or destination choices helps a lot.

    In the past few years, I do a lot of cycling solo. My life is split across 2 cities / provinces. When he is around, he and I bike together. But he also cycles solo also when I’m at work/in another city. What does help abit for me:
    * sharing with my partner at the end of day about our rides/what we’ve done if we haven’t done a ride on that day together
    *sharing with a friend on local cycling advocacy issues (this has been true where I’ve lived in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary). I was actively involved in cycling fun advocacy public events in Toronto and Vancouver.
    *Seeing other cyclists fly by my home. It’s a wonderful reminder makes me happy that other people are happy when cycling. You can see it in their faces.
    *staying connected on local cycling forum to know of local cycling routes, issues and developments. Participating several times annually on local cycling events …they tend to be fun. Non-competitive. We don’t get into mileage, cadence talk and other metrics-chat.

    I haven’t gotten into the slight competitive mindset of cycling just to keep up with “Jones”. I haven’t even had a cyclometer to track my mileage exactly in the past…um 15 years. 🙂 I bike because I must…I don’t have a car. I bike because my body calls for it. After a month (ie. in winter), my body misses cycling.

    Finally, several women have come to me ..and expressed envy because they never learned to bike. For certain, then you realize never to take cycling skill for granted.

  4. I’m very much a social exerciser. I’m unlikely to exercise alone. I like being social since I spend a lot of time working and writing alone. It also works the other way. I join other active people but I also try to persuade friends who are less active but who I want to see more of to do things with me.

  5. I’m an introvert, and five years ago I worked with a nurse who developed and interest in running. She cajoled me to going to a local program called WRAP ( walk, run, advance, plan, or something like that).
    I met others and made turtle-like improvement. She had a gift for it. This ‘program’ – we did it twice, so it was a whole year. I went onto another job, our friendship sustained. I dabbled in different activities, karate, bar ballet classes, regular gym workouts that included my favorite , the elliptical.
    For shits and giggles, when she invited me to 5K’s, I went, and she patiently waited for me and other nurses to finish the races.
    I am not motivated by more active friends. I compartmentalize quite well, probably too well. And as an introvert, I really want to connect with people when I socialize.
    No one chatted with me during those 5K’s. We finished, wiped the sweat off, grabbed water/banana’s, and within 10 minutes, everyone was explaining that they ” had to get home.” 🙂
    Thank you for this post! This is going to stay on my mind for a bit .

  6. Interestingly, after this posted yesterday, Susan texted me that she had run her longest run ever, 13.3k. I’d been meaning to get out for a run but didn’t have a plan, and she simultaneously inspired me and made me feel competitive, except that I kept my competitiveness in check and ran only 13k. Which was plenty, lol.

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