Men Need Friends to Support Exercise

Men rely on other men to help motivate them to exercise, while women apparently need more family support to keep moving, a new study says.

In an effort to understand why physical activity significantly declines during young adulthood, experts from Ohio State University randomly surveyed nearly 1,000 college students. They found men tended to be more active than women, leading researcher Lorraine Silver Wallace to surmise that may be because men have a buddy system that reinforces their activities.

‘’Because males are more active themselves, their friends are more likely to be active,’’ she said. She suggests there is a snowball effect influencing men to work out more.

But with fewer college women exercising, the snowball effect doesn’t work as well, Wallace said: ‘’They didn’t have as much social support.’’

Wallace and her colleagues surveyed students at Ohio State University, where she received her doctorate before joining as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Tyler. Her results were published in the current issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.

What Motivates People?

The study looked at questionnaire responses from 937 randomly selected students. The students’ exercise patterns were fairly similar to those in national surveys, said co-researcher Janet Buckworth of Ohio State. Thirty-nine percent of Ohio State men reported exercising at least 3 days a week for 20 minutes at a time over the previous six months. In comparison, 26 percent of women did.

Sports medicine experts say that the second largest decline in physical activity usually occurs in college-age adults, with the first big drop experienced at around age 13. “It’s an important age group to work on,” said Dr. Brad Cardinal, co-director of the Sports and Psychology Research Lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.

He explains that the trend amongst fitness experts now is to tailor messages to specific groups, depending on age, sex and socioeconomic factors, among others. “One size fits all doesn’t work,” when it comes to exercise programs and getting people motivated to do them.

Indeed, the surveys revealed different factors motivate men and women to exercise.

Men who exercised regularly commonly reported they had high social support from their friends, Wallace said. The 27 percent of men who weren’t exercising, and weren’t thinking of trying, commonly also had little encouragement from their friends, she said. And the 34 percent who were occasional exercisers had moderate support, she said.

Family Support Crucial for Women

For women, however, the crucial determining factor seemed to be family support. The regular exercisers had high family encouragement to work out, while the 37 percent of women who weren’t even thinking about starting to exercise commonly said their families weren’t enthused. Another 37 percent who were occasional exercisers had moderate family support.

But family members of college students often live far from campus. So family may be a weaker substitute for the on-campus peer support that the men have, said Wallace, who called for more efforts to build peer networks for women.

“As a general rule social support is very important for women,” agreed Cardinal. He called the findings, “interesting,” and said they could help to target people more effectively but admitted he was a little surprised by the study’s results.

“Men are definitely influenced by their peers but not as much in exercise as in smoking or illicit drug use.” In his own work, he has found women to be much more responsive to fitness programs and more motivated to change than men.

The National Institutes of Health consensus on physical activity states that adults, both male and female, should do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, or preferably all, days.

The Associated Press and's Ephrat Livni contributed to this report.