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Credit: Lizzy Machielse , Lizzy Machielse

If, like many of us, you’re looking to get into better shape, Penn researchers have just unearthed the best form of motivation: competition.

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication concluded that competition was an ideal motivator for getting people to exercise more.

“Our past research shows that online social networks can be very effective for motivating behavior change, but what we don’t know is why,” senior author Damon Centola, a professor in the Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said in an video published by Annenberg.

In pursuit of an answer, the research team set up an online social network and exercise program called PennSHAPE. Nearly 800 graduate and professional students signed up for the program, which provided them access to weekly exercise classes, fitness mentoring and nutrition advice. The program lasted 11 weeks and students had the opportunity to win prizes for attending classes.

The team divided the participants into four groups: a control group, a competitive individual group, a support group and a competitive team group. People in competitive groups had access to rankings based on the number of classes attended, while the support group was designed to encourage teamwork.

“Social competition is really the strongest motivation for encouraging these continuous efforts on a daily basis,” Jingwen Zhang, a recent Annenberg graduate, co-author and current assistant professor at the University of California, Davis said.

Not only did the members of the competitive groups attend more classes than the control group did, but members of the support group attended fewer classes.

“What surprised us the most was that our support group exercised even less than our control group," Centola said. "Most people think that giving people more online resources will increase their behavior change, but in fact we found the opposite. Giving people the wrong kinds of social resources actually makes them exercise less."

“Lifestyle changes are hard to make,” Centola added. “But if you can successfully motivate people to change behaviors using online tools, it’s a relatively small expense that can do a lot of social good.”

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