We all know engagement can help your community members become more active, but can it also help your waistline?
More and more of our lives are online, from professional communities to social media. So what happens when you bring your fitness routine online? There are many benefits to working out with a partner -- you both push each other and hold each other accountable -- but does it work if your fitness partner(s) are virtual?
It turns out, virtual workout buddies are just as good as IRL workout buddies. The University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication recently conducted a study that uncovered the benefits of virtual workout communities. This is a big deal, not just for the 43% of Americans who don’t get enough daily exercise -- but for many offline behaviors. If virtual communities motivate people to exercise more, there is potential for online communities to help people maintain all types of offline, long term goals.
How did the virtual workout study go?
Let’s break down how the study worked: 217 undergraduate students signed up and received a free gym membership. They were broken up into three groups. Group 1 regularly received inspiring emails from UPenn, encouraging them to workout. Group 2 didn’t receive messages, but were split into subgroups of six people. Even though it was all anonymous (they didn’t know who was in their group), people in Group 2 received emails whenever someone from their group went to the gym or signed up for a workout class. Group 3 was the control.
They found Group 1 had an initial bump in activity, but it didn’t last long. On the other hand, Group 2 did well. After 13 weeks, their self-described exercise routines and workout class enrollment increased.
Although we’re inundated with promotions and advertisements constantly, this study found that they don’t work if we want long term change. Instead, the study found that social pressures -- even perceived social pressure from anonymous people -- work well at motivating for the long haul.
Why do online fitness communities work?
For some people, getting to the gym or squeezing in regular workouts is nearly impossible. Could a virtual community really be the silver bullet? Let’s look at a few different reasons why they can work:
1. A reinforcing behavior loop
We all know what peer pressure feels like. Although it’s not always a great feeling, sometimes social influences can actually push you to do a “good” behavior. For example, if a student hears how hard their friend studied for a test, they’re more likely to study, which could benefit them. If you hear someone talk about their new workout regimen, you may decide to go to the gym more often -- also a potential benefit.
As the UPenn study found, the same social pressures happen online. Just hearing about your peers working out pushes you to also workout. Why was does that work? They got feedback and praise from peers in the group. They also saw what other people were doing -- it inspired and motivated. The community ecosystem created a reinforcing behavior loop -- you write what you did, people praise you, you work out again, and get more praise. Or, you see someone workout, you workout, they see you workout, they workout. That’s why people involved in the online community not only stuck to their goals better than the control group, they exceeded their goals.
The community for you: Fitbit has an awesome community for Fitbit users that could create a positive behavior loop for you. It doesn’t just cover customer support (i.e. how do you use this thing???). Fellow Fitbit users created a “people support” network. Users post why they got a Fitbit, their general and 2016 goals, and everything in between.
It’s easy to make lofty goals and then fall short. Even if you tell people -- “I’m going to train for a marathon” or “I’m going to lose 20 pounds in 2016” -- it’s still easy to lose track. How do you stay accountable and follow through? If you break your big goals into smaller goals -- I’m going to run three miles today -- it becomes easier. Take the next step and post in your community, “I’m going to run three miles today,” and it’s even easier to stick to the plan. What if someone asks you how it went and you have to admit you didn’t do it?
Often, workout buddies help hold us accountable -- you don’t want to ditch the friend you were supposed to run with. But sometimes it’s hard to find the right workout friend. That’s where online communities are helpful. And, as the study showed, you don’t even need to be friends with them or know too much about them. Just knowing someone can tell whether or not you’ve followed through (and seeing other people follow through) can be enough.
The community for you: MakeMe is an app that you can use with a group of friends or your family to hold each other accountable. It goes beyond just working out (maybe you have trouble watering your plants and need to be held accountable), but is a good fit for keeping up with your exercise regimen. With the app, you tell your community what your goal is (“I will run four times this week”) and what you’ll do if you fail (“I won’t drink coffee on Sunday”). In the app you make goals -- even group goals -- action plans and daily moves to help you keep on track.
3. Compare and compete
Sometimes there’s nothing like a little competition to keep you moving. Many communities use gamification tactics to increase online engagement, but it’s also motivating offline. The UPenn study didn’t look at competition and motivation, but because of the results, it’s one of the next areas they plan to research.
In the online community world, we know gamification -- with the right rewards -- can be a powerful tool. If the reward is extrinsic -- like money or badges -- long term behavior change is harder. But if the reward is intrinsic -- like being proud to be at the top of a leader board, or feeling healthy and confident in your body -- it can be very powerful and motivating.
The community for you: There are several communities that build in a competitive edge. Fitocracy aims to turn working out into a game. Every time you log in a workout, you receive points from friends giving you “props” for your workout. These points add up to get you to the next level in the game and also compare you on the leaderboard. They even have “quests” for you to take on (i.e. different workouts you can do). Another community for you to try is Strava. Strava uses your phone to track your workout -- it connects to GPS and your heart rate monitor, so fitness nerds can really geek out on their stats. You can then upload your workout on to the community, where you can compare yourself to other people. Since it’s mostly geared towards runners and cyclists, it’s also a good way to learn about new routes.
The power of community and engagement goes beyond just making your members happier -- it can be a powerful tool in your personal life as well. If fitness was one of your 2016 New Year resolutions, now is a good time to try one of these communities out.
What’s your favorite online workout community?