Why is it so hard for people to exercise regularly? On the psychological front, you would think that an exercise habit would be the easiest one in the world to pick up. If humans are wired for positive reinforcement, meaning we naturally want more of what feels good, then exercise should be a no-brainer. In addition to all of the physical benefits of exercise, it’s also a highly effective mood enhancer that starts to work almost instantly. Within minutes stress is reduced, mental clarity increases, and self-esteem rises up a notch along with an improved sense of well-being. People almost universally feel better after they exercise. And yet, the dropout rate is pretty spectacular.
Which brings us to the idea of the buddy system: where someone makes a plan to hit the gym with another person. This falls under the broader category of social support, which includes the many subtle and overt ways that other people help us to maintain our exercise program. Social support is one of the key factors in sustaining the motivation to exercise, regardless if you’re highly active or more sedentary.
So, how does the buddy system work?
1. You’re on the Hook
For many people, just showing up can be the hardest part of staying committed to fitness. So when you make a plan to take a group fitness class with another person, you’ve just increased your level of accountability. Once you commit to it, it’s not so easy to skip the class, do it later, or blow it off completely. Accountability is a big part of what brings you to the starting line.
2. It’s More Intense
Buddy workouts often generate a bit of healthy competition, which can lead to more physically intense sessions. Sometimes we compete directly, like throwing down a challenge with words or body language. But much of the time our competitive urges operate outside of our awareness. In other words, we may not be consciously thinking, “See how much better I am than you?” but we’re acting on it. The slightly better form, the heavier weights, the extra mile on the treadmill. Oh, we really, really want the other person to see all that.
3. Positively Distracting
If you were by yourself, you might not go the extra mile. Too hot, too tired, done. Even in class, you might sit this one out while people all around you carry on with vigor. But it’s hard to quit when your buddy—the person you’ve carefully selected to be encouraging not critical and there for you—cracks a joke and tells you to keep going. A supportive relationship can be surprising powerful.
4. Learn More Moves
Even the most dedicated gym rat doesn’t know it all, there’s always room for improvement. Friends can teach you new exercises or circuits and they can point out things you might be doing wrong. Get into a routine with a friend and finally learn how to crush that pistol squat
On top of learning some new solo exercises, a partner can help you broaden the scope of what you can do. In other words, you can do exercises that require two people. Think crunches with a medicine ball pass or partner push-ups with a shoulder tap—the possibilities are practically endless.
6. Affordable Personal Training
Maybe you’ve been thinking about hiring a personal trainer but just don’t have room in your budget for a series of solo sessions; a friend might be able to help. Hiring a personal trainer for the both of you will lighten your individual cost and as long as you and your friend are at similar fitness levels with related goals, the session should be just as beneficial as a one-on-one appointment.
7. Recover together
There’s nothing worse than undoing all your hard work at the gym with unhealthy foods. A friend who’s worked up a sweat with you is likely to want to join you for a healthy post-exercise meal or snack.