The basic premise of weight loss all boils down to one simple equation: if you want to shed pounds, burn more calories than you consume. For every fad diet, weight loss program, pill, supplement, or regimen, the facts still remain this simple.
For every 500 extra calories you burn a day, you’ll lose around one pound of fat per week—a steady, healthy routine for sustainable and safe weight loss. Of course this equation can become complicated, by a variety of factors. If it was easy and simple, rates of overweight and obese Americans wouldn’t still be on the upward climb, and calculating the number of calories you eat and burn requires diligent tracking, with plenty of room for error.
Researchers at Kansas State University have begun to study one less-obvious way to maximize weight loss, and it has nothing to do with the calories you eat during the day, but the company that you keep while exercising at the gym. Their work is finding that simply by tweaking the company you keep in the gym, you can burn more.
Some experts claim working out alone is ideal in order to maintain focus, and might be better for shy or introverted people. Other research has suggested that working out with a group holds gym-goers accountable and keeps them motivated to show up each day. This most recent research headed by assistant professor of kinesiology, Brandon Irwin, has uncovered that when people chose to work out with a teammate who they perceive as better than them, they pushed harder and longer. Coupling up with a superior partner can result in 200% higher intensity, in fact.
The basic concept is simple, and taps into our natural competitive desires “People like to exercise with others and make it a social activity,” explains Irwin. “We found that when you’re performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone.”
The study paired up college-age females with a virtual partner who the participants only saw on a screen, and who they were told was working out in another lab. The participants were first told to ride a stationary exercise bike for as long as they could, over the course of six sessions during a four-week period. The typical time that the rode, which was around 10 minutes, was then compared with what happened with watching their virtual workout partner.
Participants were told that this partner had ridden the bike for 40 percent longer than they had been able to. “We created a situation where the participant was the weak link,” explains Irwin, adding that the overall team score depended on which of the riders quit pedaling first. Going into this simulated match knowing their partner had already outperformed them, the study participants pushed harder and exceeded their old personal record, because they didn’t want to let their partner down.
Participants outperformed their old record by about 90%, after just being told their partner had ridden longer than them, and when actually watching their partner, ultimately performed 200% better. So Irwin was curious of the long term results for people constantly surrounded by superior partners. Would this motivate or discourage over the long term, such as when a runner is training for months for an event like a marathon?
Irvin’s research found that the answer was not black and white—it depends on by just how much better a training partner is. For example, if a partner is roughly equal or exponentially better, the motivation drops off, but a partner who exceeds you by about 40% was found to be the ideal competitive edge in order to keep motivation levels high.
In the future, Irwin hopes to expand this research by borrowing from fields of study that looks at dating sites and matchmaking software to move beyond the virtual and create real-life workout partnerships. “You could be matched up based on your fitness goals and levels,” he explains. “Using technology, you could run with someone using your smartphones.”
As they say, you are the sum of the company you keep, and when it comes to pushing harder in the gym, gaining strength, and performing at higher levels, choosing your company wisely makes all the difference.
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