It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday, and I’m exhausted after a long work week. I spend all day motivating other people to move, but right now I feel like lounging on my couch. I’m not going to, though, because my friend Nancy Civetta is coming over to take a walk with me.
As we set out, I’m aware that, left to my own devices, my pace would be glacially slow. But Nancy sets a brisk pace, her arms pumping. Naturally, I need to keep up. Our conversation weaves through work, family, and life in general; we have a few laughs.
We all know that exercise is good for us. But it’s easy to let things slide. It makes sense that one way to stay motivated and make exercise more fun is to find a workout buddy rather than going it alone.
Research supports intuition on this: it’s estimated that of all the people who begin a new exercise routine only 50 percent keep it going for more than six months. Why do so many people quit after only a few months? Surveys show that people give up when exercise is no fun, boring, or too hard.
Studies also show that people who work out with a friend are more likely to make it a long-term commitment. There are several reasons for this. Here are four that make a lot of sense to me.
Accountability. Enlisting a partner makes you accountable. It’s not easy to get out of bed at 6 a.m. to exercise before work. If you’re on your own, you can hit the snooze button and forget it. If you know someone is out there waiting, though, you won’t want to let them down.
“When the weather is iffy,” says my walking buddy, “it’s easy to bag out, especially if you’re on your own.” Nancy often swims with friends. “Just last week,” she says, “I thought it was too chilly, but my Aunt Necee was determined to go, so we went.”
Specificity. When you make a plan with someone, your workout moves from the abstract to the concrete. Rather than saying to yourself that you’ll exercise when you have some free time, making a date with a friend means you’re setting a specific day and time for your workout. But unlike signing up for a class, you and a friend have the flexibility to choose the time, place, length, and style of your workouts.
It is best to schedule your workouts regularly, though. That way you don’t have to have a negotiation every week about what time to exercise. Of course, there’s always the possibility of spontaneity — you find a surprise pocket of free time and you throw out a text. If you’re lucky, you get company for your session.
Friendly competition. Having company is motivating. People working out with others go longer and at a higher intensity than they would on their own. One reason may be that you’re enjoying yourself — the time seems to pass more quickly, so you find yourself going farther than usual. It might also be that you increase your pace or add a few more reps when some friendly competition kicks in.
“Working out with friends is much better than working out alone,” says my nephew, Jack Barrio. He just joined a gym with some of his buddies — they lift weights and play basketball there. Besides the chance to socialize, he says, “I get a better workout because they push me to do more.”
Ehren Shenk does yoga in the morning with a neighbor. “I still take out my mat when she’s not here,” he says, “but I do just a little. We do much more when it’s both of us.”
Adventure. Workout buddies can help you to be more adventurous. You may be encouraged to try new routes or different activities. Having a partner also opens up more possibilities like tennis, pickleball, and dancing. Yes, dancing counts as exercise.
“I love to dance,” Nancy Siemer says. “I become inspired by energy on the dance floor.” But what will keep her on the dance floor all night, she says, is “anticipating the rhythms and beats of the music with a friend.”
The mood-improving, stress-reducing effects of exercise are more pronounced when you add some socializing to the equation. When exercising with others, my walking buddy tells me, “I feel like I’m taking care of my emotional health as well as the physical.”
If you’re the kind who joins a gym and then doesn’t go, or dreams up a routine but doesn’t stick with it, consider checking in with family, friends, neighbors or coworkers. A buddy system might be just what you need.