Social Media Makes Running Contagious

You’ll be surprised where you catch the running bug. Get ready to rethink your #fitspiration.

There really is something to your fitness tracker’s leaderboard – something that can, even if subconsciously, make you run further, faster, and more often.

That’s the word from a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that evaluated the running habits of 1.1 million runners. All of these runners were part of a global social network that allowed users to upload data from their fitness trackers as well as become virtual friends with other like-minded users.

On the network, friends were able to automatically share their workout data with one another. And, while the study doesn’t name the social network researched (for contractual reasons), there’s no end to the number of social networks that fit the description. Who here isn’t using StravaRunKeeper, or FitBit?

After gathering five years’ worth of data logged through the social network, the researchers concluded that running is virtually contagious: the more our friends run, the more we run. And when we push ourselves harder, faster, and further our online running buddies do, too. For instance, in the study, when people ran an extra 10 minutes, their friends ran, on average, an extra three.

But there’s more. Who we’re compaing ourselves to is pretty interesting.

Couch Potatoes Over Marathoners
We runners do get pretty competitive, but if running is contagious, the study found that we are actually the most likely to catch it from our least fit running buddies. You know, the ones who wear shirts about turtles crawling through peanut butter.

“We modify and adapt our behavior by making comparisons, both upward and downward,” said lead study author Sinan Aral, Ph.D., David Austin Professor of Management and a professor of information technology and marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “When we make upward comparisons, we are looking to others for inspiration. With downward comparisons, we are looking over our shoulder to see who gaining on us.

“This research shows us that these downward comparisons far more significantly influence our running behavior,” Aral continued. “Couch potatoes influence marathoners more than marathoners influence couch potatoes.”

Think about it this way: if you are running a marathon, are you going to try to catch the Kenyans? No, you’re going to try to stay in front of woman who is nine months pregnant, ready to pop, and gaining on you.

“Our instinct is to retain our superiority and defend our lead,” Aral said. “So if someone who we have been beating consistently gains on us, that’s going to motivate us.”

Online, when we see our less-fit friends logging times and distances that approach ours, we feel the need to kick things into high gear.

Interestingly, this was most true of men. According to the study, while both activity logged by men and women spur men to run more, only women influence other women.

It’s true that, when looking at large groups like this, the average man is likely to be faster than the average woman. But whether that explains why men aren’t all that motivating to women is still up for debate. After all, women tend to be more “self-directed” than men, who tend to be more competitive, Aral said.

Strength in Numbers
“The more friends you have, the more you’ll run,” Aral said. He notes that, in the study, the more virtual running friends – plus the more distinct friend groups as well as mutual friends – a particular exerciser had, the more motivating others’ logged performances were.

“The extra eyeballs watching definitely help,” he said. Plus, when you and an online running buddy share several mutual friends, there’s an extra push to fit in and stay with the pack.

Your move: add more friends to your social network and leaderboard.

“It’s obvious that your social circle matters. Who you surround yourself with, even online, is going to affect how motivated you are,” Aral said. In terms of actually choosing the best buddies, he suggests opting for those who are slightly less fit than you are, but on an upward trajectory. “They will push you to consistently do better,” he said.


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