A Cyberbuddy Boosts Exercise Effort

If you need a little encouragement in order to stick with an exercise regimen, a digital workout pal just might be the answer. Michigan State University researchers have shown that a software-generated partner can be an effective motivator. A human exercise buddy is still a better cheerleader but a cyberbuddy definitely helps gives people the extra nudge they need. The study appears in the April 2014 issue of Games for Health Journal.

A release from MSU note quotes study leader Deborah Feltz, a University Distinguished Professor in MSU’s kinesiology department, as saying, “We wanted to demonstrate that something that isn’t real can still motivate people to give greater effort while exercising than if they had to do it by themselves. Her co-investigator was Brian Winn, associate professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

The release notes that the implications from the research also could open the door for software and video game companies to create cyber buddy programs based on sport psychology.

“Unlike many of the current game designs out there, these results could allow developers to create exercise platforms that incorporate team or partner dynamics that are based on science,” said Feltz.

Using “CyBud-X,” an exercise game specifically developed for Feltz’s research, participants were given five different isometric plank exercises to do with one of three same-sex partner choices.

Along with a human partner option, two software-generated buddies were used – one representing what looked to be a nearly human partner and another that looked animated. The participant and partner image were then projected onto a screen via a web camera while the participants were exercising. The results showed that a significant motivational gain was observed in all partner conditions.

“Even though participants paired with a human partner held their planks, on average, one minute and 20 seconds longer than those with no partner, those paired with one of the software-generated buddies still held out, on average, 33 seconds longer,” said Feltz.

Much of Feltz’s research in this area has focused on the Köhler Motivation Effect, a phenomenon that explains why people, who may not be adept exercisers themselves, perform better with a moderately better partner or team as opposed to working out alone.

Her findings give credence that programs such as “CyBud-X” can make a difference in the way people perform.

“We know that people tend to show more effort during exercise when there are other partners involved because their performance hinges on how the entire team does,” she said. “The fact that a nonhuman partner can have a similar effect is encouraging.”

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health funded the study. Other MSU researchers on the project included Karin Pfeiffer, associate professor in kinesiology, and Norbert Kerr, professor of social science psychology.

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