Virtual workout partners spur better results

May 18, 2011

Can't find anyone to exercise with? Don't despair: New research from Michigan State University reveals working out with a virtual partner improves motivation during exercise.

The study led by Deborah Feltz, chairperson of MSU's Department of , is the first to investigate the Kohler effect on motivation in health video games; that phenomenon explains why inferior team members perform better in a group than they would by themselves.

The research, to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, was funded by a $150,000 grant from Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio.

"Our results suggest working out with virtually present, superior partners can improve motivation on exercise game tasks," Feltz said. "These findings provide a starting point to test additional features that have the potential to improve motivational gains in health video games."

By incorporating design features based on the Kohler effect, health video games could motivate , she added.

"One of the key hurdles people cite in not working out is a lack of motivation," Feltz said. "Research has shown working out with a partner increases motivation, and with a virtual partner, you are removing the that some people feel working out in public."

As part of the study, Feltz and her research team used the Eye Toy camera and to measure if a virtual partner motivated people to exercise harder, longer or more frequently. A plank exercise (which strengthens a person's core abdominal muscles) was used for nearly all 200 participants.

Participants performed the first series of five exercises alone holding each position for as long as they could. After a rest period, they were told they would do the remaining trials with a same-sex virtual partner whom they could observe during their performance. The partner's performance was manipulated to be always superior to the participant's.

Results showed that task persistence was significantly greater in all experimental conditions; those who exercised with a more-capable virtual partner performed the exercise 24 percent longer than those without.

"The fact that this effect was found with a virtual partner overcomes some of the practical obstacles of finding an optimally-matched partner to exercise with at a particular location," Feltz said.

Also, researchers have found live partners are not always the most helpful.

"Individuals can become discouraged if they believe they can never keep up with their partner, or on the other hand, become bored if their partner is always slower," Feltz said. "With a virtual partner, this can be addressed."

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