(Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama via Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama via Creative Commons License)

The best motivation to work out comes from competition rather than friendly support, a new study suggests.

Writing in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that some healthy competition during a workout was more effective than many other motivators, including coaching, team activities or money.

For the study, the researcher recruited about 800 participants from the university to sign up for an 11-week fitness program that provided exercise classes, fitness mentoring and nutrition advice all administered via a website.

Students who attended the most fitness classes were given prizes.

What the participants did not know was that they had been placed in four different groups to test the effectiveness of social networks on exercise levels. The groups were split into categories: individual competition, team support, team competition and a control group.

The individual competition group members could see an anonymous exercise leaderboard which showed how much exercise group members were getting. They also earned prizes based on participation levels.

For the team support group, members were assigned to a support unit in which they could chat with other unit members to encourage each other to work out. Rewards were given to the unit with the most participation.

In the team competition group, members could see a leaderboard of other teams and see how their team compared.

The control group could use the website and go to any class, but they were not given access to others on the site to encourage or be encouraged to exercise. Prizes were given to individuals based on the amount of exercise.

Researchers said the groups with a competitive element attended exercise classes at a rate 90 percent higher than those in the control group. Both team and individual competition seemed to work, with people in the team competition group taking 38.5 classes a week and those in the individual competition group taking 35.7 classes a week.

Members in the control group took exercise classes only 20.3 times a week.

In what researchers say is the “biggest surprise” came from the team support group, members of which only attended fitness classes 16.8 times per week.

"Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better," says Damon Centola, an associate professor in Penn's Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and senior author on the paper. "This study shows that isn't true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors. However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people's fitness dramatically."

Support doesn’t always work, Centola added.

"Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation," he said. “In the competitive groups, however, people who exercise the most give off the loudest signal. "Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance."

Competition appears to have the opposite effect.

"In a competitive setting, each person's activity raises the bar for everyone else,” Centola said. “Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly."