The Key to Exercise Motivation

Like many people, I manage to exercise almost every day, but I’m not always motivated to do my best. And there are periods when “almost every day” doesn’t happen either. Sound familiar? Well, I’m happy to tell you that researchers have discovered a way that we can all improve our exercise performance merely by teaming up with the right kind of partner — and that partner does not have to be a human being. A “virtual” partner can be just as effective.

All this came to light during recent experiments at Michigan State University, where researchers asked test subjects to compare how well they were able to do plank exercises, in which you strengthen abdominal muscles by lying facedown on a mat and pushing up with your feet and your forearms until your body is suspended several inches above the mat, straight as, yes, a plank. The object is to keep your body suspended for as long as possible.

The main purpose of the research — to be published in an upcoming issue of Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology — was to show the participants’ level of motivation and persistence depending on whether they exercised with a partner or alone. Results consistently showed greater performance when a participant had a partner. In fact, even a virtual partner spurred performance when compared with a participant exercising alone. How, you may be asking, did the researchers observe the impact of a “virtual” partner?

In several tests, participants could see themselves on a nearby EyeToy, the camera device designed for PlayStation 2, the popular video game console. Alongside the EyeToy was a second screen on which participants saw a person — someone they had been introduced to briefly, and in person, as their new exercise partner. What participants didn’t know was that the partner on the screen was virtual. That is, it was a tape of a person exercising, which actually had been recorded the day before. Since the participants would be viewing their partners through a video link connected to a television screen, they wouldn’t know the difference and would, in fact, think of their partner as live.

Participants were told that they and their partners were a team of two whose rating would be determined by whichever team member got the worse score. For example, if a participant was able to stay suspended for 40 seconds, but the partner could remain suspended for two minutes, the team score would be 40 seconds. Results showed that the intensity and duration of exercise were always greater when participating with a partner. In one test, participants were offered a reward (a membership at a fitness club) for getting a high score. In a follow-up test, no reward was offered, but with the partner “present,” the team produced a higher score than when a reward was offered.


Results surprised even the lead researcher, Deborah Feltz, PhD, university distinguished professor and chairperson of Michigan State’s department of kinesiology. I spoke with her about the findings and about that all-important topic “motivation.” As Dr. Feltz put it, “It appears that working as part of a team and helping a teammate is stronger motivation than the prospect of a reward” — and a good part of that motivation, she said, appears to be based on the concern of letting a teammate down or on being identified as the weak link in the team.

Of course, participants did think that they were watching their partners perform live, but Dr. Feltz said it probably wouldn’t have made much difference if they had known that the video had been taped earlier. Many other studies, she said, have shown that people routinely treat computers — whether robotlike or with screens that display words — as if they’re human. “If you doubt that, just think about all the people who curse the GPS in their cars when it gives wrong directions,” she said. An upcoming study at Michigan State will focus specifically on using computer-generated partners in physical exercise, Dr. Feltz said.

In light of this research and other studies, Dr. Feltz had this advice for anyone who wants to exercise more effectively…

  • Instead of giving yourself a reward for exercising, choose a partner with whom you can work out.
  • The best exercise partner is someone who is slightly more fit or proficient than you are. This is because doing as well as, or better than, the partner becomes a goal. Conversely, it can be discouraging to work out with someone who is far more competent than you are. In fact, the study found that participants lost motivation if they believed that they could never keep up with their partners… and working out with someone who is far less competent than you isn’t great, as it’s all too easy to become bored.

In the next few years, Dr. Feltz expects we’ll see many video health games that take advantage of the notion of working out with virtual partners. Imagine a brave new world where we’ll all be exercising often and more effectively, not wanting to let our partners — virtual though they may be — feel that we haven’t done our utmost!


Deborah Feltz, PhD, an expert in sports psychology, is a university distinguished professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing and chairperson of the department of kinesiology.