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Köhler Effect Explained

If you’ve ever worked out with fitter pals and ratcheted up your intensity to keep pace, you’ve felt the benefits of the Köhler effect — a motivational boost that helps weaker members of a team perform better than they would on their own. Recent findings published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology suggest that you don’t need a workout partner puffing alongside you to experience the improvements; a virtual exercise companion can provide a similar benefit.

Study subjects were asked to complete a series of five exercises, holding each position for as long as they could. After resting, they did the remaining exercises while watching a same-sex virtual partner who had been programmed to perform about 40 percent better than the subject. Subjects’ performance on all the exercises improved; on a difficult plank exercise, for example, endurance jumped 24 percent.

“It’s hard to find workout partners who are just a little bit better than you are — and it can be frustrating for the people who are fitter,” says lead researcher Deborah Feltz, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University. “But it’s important [to get that push], because it’s such a powerful effect.”

Because virtual workout partners remain in the province of research studies for now, Feltz recommends this strategy to get a similar boost: Ask a slightly fitter friend for his or her best stats, and use those to stretch your goal.

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