Understand and use motivation contagion: everyone matters

When I was a child, my parents always concerned themselves with whether I was hanging out with the “right” schoolmates. I never agreed with their definition of “right”, but they were onto something. I only accepted this truth when I was already in my thirties and reflected on choices I made in my life and why, and was surprised by correlations between what I did and who I happened to be around at the time.

An excellent article by running trainer and coach Steve Magness reminded me how important motivation contagion is in our lives, whether we recognize this consciously or not.

Exercise habits and performance

The study he references tried to determine whether exercise habits or performance are contagious. It turned out that your least fit friends most influence your own fitness.


OK, supposing you accept this, what is your reaction?

Some people might think “Oh, I should ditch my unfit friends”. This is a somewhat cynical and heartless reaction, of course, and narrow as a criterion of who deserves friendship, and perhaps shortsighted in a similar way as explained in “Don’t surround yourself with smarter people”. Physical fitness is not the only measure of the worth of a human being!

Still, the reality seems that if you unapologetically value your own fitness, you might do best to be careful about your associations with the least fit. I’m going to be honest here: in the past several years, as my social circles have changed from being dominated by fitness freaks (dancers and runners) to more “regular” people, my own fitness has plummeted considerably. I chalk it up to having far less motivation to exercise the way I used to, not being involved in constant shared activities such as races and just working out together. I’m determined to get back in shape, but it will be much harder than when I was actually one of the least fit of everyone around me.

A more positive interpretation, by Magness, in the context of teams, is that everyone matters. If you are less fit, then if you care about the group, what you do to improve yourself, personally, actually benefits a lot more people than you. So understanding motivation contagion can give you motivation to not only help yourself but those you love.

Other applications

Of course, this applies not only to fitness and sports, but to academics, work, and any other habits or activities.

A closing note

I was horribly unfit as a child. I only hung out with others who were very unfit, unfortunately, so that did not help motivate me. On the other hand, my parents made sure to always try to exclude “bad students” from my life, in order to boost my grades. It kind of worked. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with their narrow, lopsided priorities: I wish I had hung out with more athletes as a child and had much better health as a result. I didn’t start running until age 29.

When you think about it, how does motivation contagion currently work for or against you in your life? What are the good influences that you absorb, and the bad influences? Do you actively try to change your environment in order to help yourself behave in a different way? What challenges do you face?

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