Having an exercise buddy as you get older keeps you motivated

People typically drop away from physical activity as they get older. Having an active friend can change that.

People typically drop away from physical activity as they get older. Having an active friend can change that. Photo: Getty

Do you and your mates blob out in front of the TV and get your exercise by wandering to the fridge and back to the couch again?

Sooner or later you’ll have noticed that the beer and nachos lifestyle is literally piling up in the front of you.

New research suggests you need to expand your circle of friends to include some moderately active people.

These new friends, serving as exercise buddies, are more likely to get you off the couch and stepping toward better heart health and less risk of developing cancer.

By falling in with moderately active people you won’t feel threatened or inadequate as you might if you were to try and follow the example of highly competitive fitness freaks.

The new study

Researchers from Kean University, New Jersey, have developed a new mathematical model that simulates how social interactions could influence our physical activity at a community level.

If the couch and TV are your best friends, it’s time to get some new ones. Photo: Getty

The modelling drew on data from the US Military Academy and the findings could “inform efforts to maintain physical fitness in the US military”.

This might surprise some people, but over time, many military personnel – who may have passed the rigours of basic training when they joined up – tend to run to fat like the rest of us.

The exceptions are the special forces and, to a lesser degree, regular soldiers on deployment.

The Kean simulations showed that, “in the absence of social interactions, populations experienced a long-term decrease in physically active individuals, and sedentary behaviour began to dominate”.

The health of the community may come down to a battle of wills. Photo: Getty

However, when the simulations included social interactions between sedentary and moderately active people, sedentary populations became more physically active in the long term.

But in simulations where moderately active people became more sedentary over time, overall physical activity trends plummeted.

The researchers found that extremely active individuals (let’s call them athletes) are “unlikely to change their exercise habits due to social influence and have little social influence on the sedentary population”.

In other words, the authors conclude: “Our model suggests that focusing on the moderately active population to sustain their activity and increasing their interactions with sedentary people could stimulate higher levels of overall physical activity in the population.”

The buddy system

The benefits of having an exercise buddy aren’t new. In fact, they’re widely promoted by government health departments.

As the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel advises: “Exercising with a friend is a great way to keep you motivated. It’s also a great way to meet new people. It can even save you money.”

Saving money?

Better Health says: “If you hire a personal trainer, or buy equipment, splitting the cost two ways will save you money. You can also save on travel costs by car-pooling to get to the park, gym, pool or sports venue.”

The US CDC also regards exercising with a friend as being more motivating.

When you work out with a partner, the CDC says, you’re likely to:

  • Feel more motivated. When you and your buddy encourage each other, you’ll work harder (and get better results). And there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition
  • Be more adventurous. It’s easier to try new things with a buddy. You may just find an activity you love, one that feels more like fun and less like a workout
  • Be more consistent. When someone else is counting on you to show up, you won’t want to let them down.

All of this is true and old news

What’s interesting about the Kean modelling is how a community’s health and fitness comes down to a battle of sorts between the moderately active and the sedentary.

If the moderately active souls can hold sway, and bring a few of the recliner crew into the light, the community’s overall wellbeing goes up.

However, sedentary people may eventually lure their moderately active buddies to the dark side of movie nights and cheese platters and swapping their walking shoes for slippers.

And when that happens, an old saying comes into effect: There goes the neighbourhood.

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