Note: This post features a discussion about the association between social comparison and physical activity. If you are new to this topic or would like an in-depth overview, please read our previous posts on social comparison and its influences on health behaviors. Briefly, when we compare something about ourselves to that of another person, we’re making a social comparison. Take exercise, for example. We might make a comparison based on minutes of exercise between us and them. Further, we could compare ourselves to someone doing better (upward) or worse (downward) with exercise minutes. Past research has shown social comparison to be important for understanding changes in physical activity. However, more research is needed to understand how we can use social comparison to guide a person toward greater physical activity behavior–a key focus of this post and our paper.
One challenge to being physically active is that even when we set intentions to exercise, it’s difficult to follow through. This is called the “intention-behavior gap.” Though existing studies have shown that some people are better at the follow-through than others, and have smaller (or no) gaps between their exercise intentions and behavior. It’s possible that learning more about the people who don’t follow through could help us design and adapt exercise interventions to be more effective for them. For our most recent paper, our now in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to know whether a person’s social comparison tendencies or their perceptions of social support affect the link between their physical activity intentions and actual behaviors. For example, it’s possible that people who make comparisons more often or generally feel more supported by close others and have more confidence in their ability to follow through on their intentions, relative to people who are lower in these characteristics. This may be especially true for college women, as social experiences are more strongly connected to their health behaviors than in other groups.
We selected this topic because:
- Women are generally less active than men, especially in college, and may face additional challenges in meeting their physical activity intentions.
- Both social comparison and social support have been linked to health behaviors like physical activity, but their influences on the intention-behavior gap have rarely been studied.
What Were Our Research Questions and Expected Outcomes?
First, we wanted to know more about college women’s exercise intentions (e.g., how often they were set) and behaviors (i.e., minutes in moderate + vigorous intensity activity). We selected women who were not already meeting exercise guidelines for health, to understand whether the intention-behavior gap was common for them. Based on existing evidence, we expected poor or moderate follow-through with exercise intentions.
Second, we wanted to know whether college women’s perceptions of their social comparisons or social support is related to their intention-behavior gap. We expected that greater social comparison and support would reduce the gap.
What Did We Do?
We conducted a 7-day observational study among 80 women students at a university in northeastern Pennsylvania (USA). Essentially, this design means that participants are asked to go about their normal activities while wearing monitors and responding to questions about their recent experiences; they didn’t participate in an intervention program or receive an experimental manipulation. Women interested in participation completed an initial online survey about demographics, social comparison, and social support. We reviewed responses and invited women to the study based on our eligibility criteria:
- No experience with wrist-worn/smartphone-based physical activity monitors
- <100 minutes/week moderate-to-vigorous physical activity
- 2nd-year student or above (to avoid effects from the transition to college)
After attending a face-to-face orientation, we asked each participant to use an electronic diary to report daily exercise intentions and wear a Fitbit to monitor their exercise behavior for 7 days.
What Did We Find?
- Exercise intentions were set on 36% of days – an average of 2-3 days a week, per person.
- On days with set intentions, the average intention was 41 minutes of moderate + vigorous activity.
- Based on Fitbit records, 26 minutes a day were spent in exercise, on average.
- Minutes of exercise varied in participants from day to day.
- Participants got about 12 more minutes of exercise on days with set intentions, versus those without; this difference was not statistically significant.
- Social support did not affect the intention-behavior gap, but overall social comparison tendency did (i.e., greater interest in social comparison reduced the gap between intention and behavior).
- The tendency to make downward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as worse-off) also reduced the gap, but the tendency to make upward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as better-off) had no effect.
What Does This Tell Us?
Unsurprisingly, low-active college women often do not set intentions to exercise. When they do set intentions, their increase in exercise is typically small and does not fulfill their intentions. This suggests a noticeable gap between college women’s exercise intentions and behavior. Social support was not linked to improvements in the intention-behavior gap, but social comparison was. Specifically, downward comparisons appear to help reduce the gap. In the future, targeting social comparison processes may improve the intention-behavior gap and reduce physical activity differences between women and men. This could help to improve women’s health during college and across the lifespan.
What Was it Like to Work on This Study?
“Dr. Arigo gave me the opportunity to learn about the research process from start to finish in the Clinical Health Psychology Lab at the University of Scranton. Through project CHASE, I had the ability to assist with participant recruitment, enrollment, technology troubleshooting, data collection, and finally manuscript writing. This broad skill set has strengthened my current research in medical school. Although writing a manuscript was intimidating, I learned how to write academically with the assistance of Leah Schumacher, Dr. Arigo, and Cole Ainsworth. It was great seeing the scientific process from start to finish, culminating in great results. I’m so proud to be a member of this team of researchers!”Coco Thomas, Medical Student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
”I joined this project after the study had finished, as our team was preparing to write the paper. This topic was new to me, so it was a challenge at times to understand the ‘big picture’ of our results–how they fit into the existing literature and what value they provide. However, having a fresh perspective helped ensure that we didn’t gloss over any details needed for readers to fully grasp what this study was about. As a whole, this project is yet another example of the CHASE Lab’s dedication to improving women’s health, and it has been a pleasure working as part of that team.”Dr. Cole Ainsworth, Postdoctoral Fellow with the CHASE Lab, Rowan University
“This project was a lot of fun to work on and was a true collaborative effort. The project team spanned institutions, experience levels, and disciplines. Over the course of working on the paper, I think that every single one of us also transitioned into a new professional role: Dr. Ainsworth and I started postdoctoral fellowships, Coco began medical school, and Dr. Arigo moved to a new institution. While this meant that progress was a bit slower at times and that the four of us never met together in a physical room, it was a real pleasure to work with such a fantastic group of people and to work so effectively as a team to get this project across the finish line. I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to work on this project and hope to work on many more projects together in the future!”Dr. Leah Schumacher, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Alpert Medical School, Brown University
I’ve been interested in the physical activity intention-behavior gap for a while, and always wanted an opportunity to study whether social comparison or social support were associated with this phenomenon. That wasn’t one of the original intentions of data collection, but that’s what’s great about secondary analyses – you already have the data and you can ask new questions. Like the rest of our team, I had a great experience working on this paper and I’m so impressed with everyone’s commitment to seeing it come together.Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director
What Comes Next?
We’re pleased to be working with a team from UNC Greensboro to dig deeper into the physical activity intention-behavior gap. This time, we’re looking at it among women in midlife (ages 40-60) using smaller time blocks – chunks of 2-3 hours, rather than full days. Stay tuned!