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A recent study, conducted by Sinan Aral and Christos Nicolaides of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and published in Nature Communication, shows that sharing exercise data with friends and even strangers may make running contagious.
Interestingly, researchers have found that all sorts of things spread within networks of friends, including happiness and obesity, and now exercising.
Aral and Nicolaides looked at data from 1.1 million people who used a global social media network to post and share their running information over five years. “The data contain the daily distance, duration and pace of, as well as calories burned during, runs undertaken by these individuals, as recorded by a suite of digital fitness-tracking devices,” the researchers wrote.
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What do the results show?
It was found that an additional kilometre run by friends influences an individual to run an additional 3/10th of a kilometre and an additional 10 minutes run by friends influences an individual to run three minutes longer.
Digging deeper, there is also strong evidence that social influence depends on gender relations. Influence among same sex pairs is strong, while influence among mixed sex pairs is statistically significantly weaker. While men strongly influence men, and women moderately influence both men and women, men do not influence women at all.
This may be due to gender differences in the motivations for exercise and competition as men are more influenced by social support in their decision to adopt exercise behaviours, while women report being more motivated by self-regulation and individual planning.
Moreover, men may be more competitive and specifically more competitive with each other. Experimental evidence suggests that women perform less well in mixed gender competition than men, even though they perform equally well in non-competitive or single sex competitive settings.
Why do social networks influence people so much?
The number of mutual friends between contacts strongly moderates social influence and contagion in running behaviours.
“When two people have many mutual friends, there are greater opportunities for social sanctions, reputational consequences for misbehavior and social rewards for positive behaviors,” the MIT researchers wrote.
Mutual friends may therefore provide an added incentive to keep up with running buddies because shirking is widely observed in a set of mutually reinforcing relationships.
However, this might not hold true for everyone and everything, as the network sample tested is representative of just one in five Americans who owns a wearable device and may not be indicative of the average person.