5 Reasons Friends Can Make Exercise Better

Working out with a buddy can benefit your health, but not any old pal will do.

A few weeks ago, I worked out with a buddy for the first time in nearly two years. This is a rare occurrence because I often find comfort in the solitude of my own workouts, and prefer establishing my own pace. And yet, my leanings toward social connectedness – humans do have a natural attraction to be with other humans, evolution dictates – occasionally prompt me to join a friend. The ensuing dynamic adds an unfamiliar but welcomed feeling of going it, well, not alone.

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While many Americans report preferring to work out alone, we may benefit, every once in a while, from choosing to do so with someone else. Here's why:

1. You'll stick to your plan.

Exercise adherence appears to strengthen when two factors are involved: accountability and social support. Surely, I'm being held responsible and offered support when I work out alongside a partner. No surprise there. However, this statement becomes enlightening when the term "partner" is broadened to a nonhuman population. It's a testament to how powerful the presence of someone, or something, is. Even electronic buddies – from high-end activity trackers to rudimentary pedometers – satisfy both factors and, in effect, have been shown to serve as an effective tool for exercise adherence. Pedometers are effective even when exercisers can't see the devices or monitor their own progress. Simply being aware of the pedometer's presence and function encourage more steps, one study showed. When we know we're being monitored by others – humans or otherwise – our behavior may change for the better.

2. You'll be more motivated.

Social support remains one of the most powerful factors in motivating the sedentary to move. And the support needn't be massive at all: Small doses of social support can produce large gains in physical activity. A study conducted at Stanford University a decade ago demonstrated that an occasional automated telephone reminder helped nudge participants into regular weekly exercise. The reminders were devoid of any individualized training advice, fitness coaching tips or direct human contact. They were simply expressionless, emotionless computer-generated messages. But the fact remains: Whether it's physical inactivity or substance abuse, social support – even if short-lived and light – helps prevent relapse and can have a lasting effect. The more constant – and, let's face it, human – the intervention is, the greater the effect on our willingness to endure through the inconvenience of remaining active.

3. You'll feel more connected.

Recall the most successful groups in which you've been involved, whether it's a sports team, work cohort or physics class project. In all likelihood, the group was successful because participants worked hard to get the job done (there were no slackers or negative influencers) and you all enjoyed each other's company. It's true for exercise groups, too. People are more likely to keep going back to exercise classes in which there is more task cohesiveness ("Let's work together to get healthy!") or social cohesiveness ("I like spending time with you!") than standard exercise classes. Find a class or group with members you enjoy and who push you, and you've overcome a major barrier to sticking with exercise.

4. You'll be happier.

You probably heard it from your parents before summer camp drop-off or college orientation, and it surely made you roll your eyes, but I'll say it again: Surround yourself with good people. Turns out, this is empirically-valid advice, based on some fascinating research aligning happiness with geographical proximity. Happiness, like health, is clearly shared through social connectedness and closeness. People who are surrounded by many happy and healthy people are more likely to become happy and healthy in the future. Emotions' contagion plays out in other ways too. Just think about that time you took a three-minute elevator ride with an irate mother on the phone with her child and how you somehow felt angrier after exiting. From an exercise perspective, working out near other health-minded gym-goers may influence your mood for the better. Find a partner who is excited and optimistic about the process.

5. You'll push yourself.

Studies show we tend to exert more force when we're being watched. The pianist, for example, unconsciously presses keys harder when performing in front of an audience and the tennis player swings the racket with greater power on the forehand in the presence of a crowd. Why? Various regions of our brain communicate – based partly on other people's cues, such as facial expressions and direction of gaze – before generating motor actions. That is, if we feel our observer wants us to do well, we will perform well. But if we pick up negative cues, our performance tends to fall apart.

Working out with a partner in and of itself may not guarantee a more joyous and fulfilling experience, especially if that partner exudes pessimism in your abilities or seems dreadfully uninterested. The importance lies in engaging in the exercise process alongside someone who cares deeply about your joint wellness and whose positive spirit is apparent.

5 Reasons Friends Can Make Exercise Better was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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