Virtual workout partners lead to better results

Are you working out alone? New research says that working out with a virtual partner will help you reach your fitness goals faster.

The research comes from Michigan State University and it was led by Deborah Feltz, chairperson of MSU’s Department of Kinesiology. The study is the first to investigate the Kohler effect on motivation in health gaming; that phenomenon explains why inferior team members perform better in a group than they would by themselves.


The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. It was funded by a $150,000 grant from Health Games Research, which is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio.


“Our results suggest working out with virtually present, superior partners can improve motivation on exercise game tasks,” Feltz said. “These findings provide a starting point to test additional features that have the potential to improve motivational gains in health video games.”


By adding design features based around the Kohler effect, health video games could motivate vigorous exercise, she added.


“One of the key hurdles people cite in not working out is a lack of motivation,” Feltz said. “Research has shown working out with a partner increases motivation, and with a virtual partner, you are removing the social anxiety that some people feel working out in public.”


One aspect of the study saw Feltz and her research team use the Eye Toy camera and PlayStation 2 to see if a virtual partner motivated people to exercise harder, longer or more regularly. An abdominal plank exercise was used for almost all 200 participants.


Subjects completed the first wave of fiver exercises alone holding each postion for as long as they were able. After a brief rest period, they were informed that they would be doing the remaining trials with a same-sex virtual partner that they could look at during their performance. The virtual partner’s performance was set up to always be superior to the participant’s.


The results showed that task determination was considerably greater in all experimental conditions; those who exercised with a more-capable virtual partner performed the exercise 24 percent longer than those without.


“The fact that this effect was found with a virtual partner overcomes some of the practical obstacles of finding an optimally-matched partner to exercise with at a particular location,” Feltz said.


Researchers have also found live exercise partners are not always the most helpful. Because as you may know, people are flawed and some of them smell really bad when they sweat.


“Individuals can become discouraged if they believe they can never keep up with their partner, or on the other hand, become bored if their partner is always slower,” Feltz said. “With a virtual partner, this can be addressed.”


Virtual people do not have a smell about them.


As part of its Health Games Research, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shares and supports quality, evidence-based research that explores and records how digital games are improving health and heath care. More than $10 million has been awarded.