New Study by MIT Sloan School Professors Shows Exercise is Contagious

Career Climbers / 20th April 2017

A new study published today in Nature Communications of the daily-recorded exercise patterns of over one million runners over five years shows that exercise is socially contagious. Your knowledge of what your friends are doing can and will motivate you to do more. The work marks a watershed moment in the use of detailed fitness tracking data to understand health behavior and causal behavior change.

“Knowing the running behaviors of your friends as shared on social networks can cause you to run farther, faster and longer,” says Sinan Aral, David Austin Professor of Management at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Aral and colleague Christos Nicolaides of MIT used a data set that precisely recorded the geographic location, social network ties and daily running patterns of over one million individuals who ran 359 million combined kilometers and logged those runs digitally in a global social network of runners over five years.  The data contain the daily distance, duration and pace of, as well as calories burned, during runs undertaken by these individuals, as recorded by a suite of digital fitness tracking devices. The results, says Aral, revealed “strong contagion effects.”

According to the study: “On the same day, on average, an additional kilometer run by friends can inspire someone to run an additional 3/10th of a kilometer, and an additional ten minutes run by friends can inspire someone to run three minutes longer.”

Historically, in the context of exercise, a debate exists about whether we make upward comparisons to those performing better than ourselves or downward comparisons to those performing worse than ourselves.  Comparisons to those ahead of us may motivate our own self-improvement, while comparisons to those behind us may create “competitive behavior to protect one’s superiority.”  According to Aral, there is evidence for both trajectories in the study, but comparisons to those better than us are more powerful.

Gender matters too. The contagion is most pronounced among men, with men influencing other men to run farther and faster. In this regard, men may be more competitive and, specifically, more competitive with each other. Influence among same sex pairs is strong while influence among mixed sex pairs is weaker. Both men and women influence men. However, only women influence women who have reported, in earlier studies, being more influenced by self-regulation and individual planning than by their peers.

See the full study here: http://www.nature.com/naturecommunications.

About the MIT Sloan School of Management The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at http://mitsloan.mit.edu/.

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