Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology, recently found that individuals tend to work out longer when their partner was perceived to be more skilled and was one who kept verbal encouragement to a minimum.
Irwin, who worked with researchers at Michigan State University on the study, said the team's goal was to determine how to increase motivation during physical activity.
In a separate study, Irwin discovered the optimal exercise partner is 40 percent better than the other, motivating the less skilled partner to exercise for a longer period of time and at an increased rate. In this study, 115 participants were told to do planks, an abdominal exercise, for as long as they could.
Next, the researchers told a group of participants they would be exercising with a partner who was slightly better, although the partner was a looped video recording. A third group was told they would be exercising with a partner-also a recording-but this time, the partner verbally encouraged them.
"Initially, it made sense to us that encouragement would be motivating. However, we found almost the opposite to be true. When exercising with someone who is slightly better and who is not verbally encouraging, participants exercised longer than if conditions were the same but that person was verbally encouraging them. We didn't expect that," Irwin said.
Irwin said the researchers' best guess for why this happened is that those who received encouragement from a partner whom they perceived as more skilled may have interpreted the comments as condescending.
"If two individuals are exercising together and one is constantly saying 'you can do this' to the other, it may be taken as patronizing," Irwin said.
"Those who received encouragement may have felt condescended, or even that their virtual partner was encouraging themselves, since no names were used," he added.
Irwin said this research could be used in designing electronic media, including both video games and social media. In a video game, the research findings could help develop the best virtual character in an exercise-based video game, like the Nintendo Wii Fit.
"Our research suggests that the best virtual workout partner is someone who is a little better than you and doesn't encourage you under certain conditions," Irwin concluded.
Irwin added that these principles could also be applied to real workout partners on a proposed social media fitness website.
The finding will be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.