Ever noticed how you tend to push yourself harder when you’re working out with a buddy, in a group class or as part of a team? If so, you’re onto something. There’s a psychological phenomenon, known as the Köhler effect, that partially explains it. By understanding how it works, you can use the group mentality to not only increase your motivation to exercise, but also perform better.
WHAT IS THE KOHLER EFFECT?
Named for scientist Otto Köhler, who first observed it in the 1920s, the Köhler effect officially refers to an increase in motivation among individuals working in groups on conjunctive tasks that require persistence but little coordination of effort. In particular, it describes how less-capable group members increase effort to match the effort of the more capable group members, elevating the performance of the entire group.
This phenomenon can apply to any group task, but in terms of sports and exercise, it’s essentially the underdog effect, explains Erika Lee Sperl, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified performance enhancement specialist. “An individual athlete will work harder in a group setting than they would on their own. This is largely driven by the fact that they don’t want to be the weakest link … after all, no one wants that trophy.”
Interestingly, the effect is the strongest when there’s not a huge difference between the fittest person and the least fit. “If you were in a downhill ski race against Lindsey Vonn, you’d know you wouldn’t have even a fraction of a chance of winning. However, my motivation is much higher when I think I have a chance to match or beat my opponent,” Sperl explains.
There’s plenty of research to back up the idea no one wants to be the weakest link. A recent study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology looked at participants holding planks alone, and then with a digital partner — making the study particularly relevant in the times of COVID. “In every experimental group, the participants held their planks longer when doing it with a partner,” Sperl says. “The finding was even stronger when the digital partner was perceived as ‘more fit’ than the participant.”
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Aside from the Köhler effect, there are other benefits to not going it alone. “Partners and groups can create accountability dynamics and encourage greater frequency of exercise,” says Colin Laughlin, BS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “It’s a good form of social pressure. If you don’t show up to the workout, you can bet people will notice and check up on you, ultimately making you more frequent and consistent with your workouts.”
What’s more, group exercise helps boost more than just our physical health according to Laughlin. It also helps with our social, emotional and environmental health. “As humans, we naturally want to be a part of a community and have a sense of belonging. Exercise can be a great foil for this,” he explains. “The camaraderie of group fitness also helps boost your mood and feelings of belonging.” And lastly, by surrounding yourself with people dedicated to improving their health, you’re more likely to make changes regarding your own health decisions outside your workouts, Laughlin says.
Grab a friend or family member in your bubble — or video chat with a workout buddy — and chip away at a partner workout together. Because you’ll have to rely on each other to complete the workout, you can put the Köhler effect to work.
It might not be quite the same as an in-person class, but knowing others are participating digitally can help increase your motivation and performance. “Many gyms quickly transitioned to online services because of COVID, meaning they’re running group Zoom sessions or recordings of workouts for you to follow along with,” Laughlin says.
“Recruit your spouse, kid, neighbor or coworker to do a digital challenge,” Sperl suggests. “Perhaps you set a goal of running a certain number of miles in one month and recruit a team of like-minded individuals to do it together,” Sperl says. You can then use an app like MyFitnessPal to log and share your workouts for accountability.
“Facebook groups can create extremely powerful support and accountability networks,” Laughlin says. “Be sure to join a group with participants above your skill level — but not so far above that you become discouraged.”
“For the more competitive individual, it can be helpful to record your personal records in a journal or on a whiteboard,” Laughlin says. “Compete with yourself for better times and weights.”
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