Turns out, a little friendly competition was all I needed to lace up my sneakers.

It's no secret that exercise is good for you. Not only is exercise good for your physical health, but there are also mental benefits of working out. And while many people are aware of the importance of exercise, the CDC reported in 2018 that just 23% of adults met the recommended guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. We should all be aiming for 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity and at least two days of strength training.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't exercised with regularity or consistency since I graduated college a few years ago. Instead, I've found myself in an unhealthy pattern where I'll exercise for a few weeks, take one day off followed by another and another. I wind up sitting around for weeks before moving again (learn what happens to your body when you sit all day). And up until three weeks ago, I was in the no-exercise part of my "routine" when my friend Emily and I decided to switch things up.

We had been discussing our recent lack of exercise motivation and decided to set a friendly wager: whoever exercised the least in the next two and a half weeks (which was when we would next see each other) had to buy the winner lunch. To keep each other accountable, we had to send photos to document our activity. And to my surprise, I ended up going for a brisk walk for a total of eight times (learn more about the health benefits of walking). 

I was honestly shocked that I was able to keep it up, especially when I took a five-day break, but harnessing my competitive nature was able to help me. And it turns out that competition is a proven motivator when it comes to exercise, according to a 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Damon Centola, Ph.D., an associate professor in Penn's Annenberg School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the lead author, says, "In a competitive setting, each person's activity raises the bar for everyone else." I found that to be true on days when my friend would exercise first because seeing that she did it would motivate me to not fall behind.

two women running together
Credit: Getty Images / kali9

In addition to the competitive nature of our bet, there was also an incentive attached: a free lunch. A study found that financial incentives increased working out, with the most effective being loss-based incentives. Think of someone giving you $30 up front and then taking $1 back every day you didn't exercise. The threat of losing that reward spurs action to keep it. While our bet wasn't technically loss-based, there was still the potential for loss as one person knew they would have to buy lunch.

Although I ended up footing the bill for lunch, I still think the bet was a success. Not only did it inspire both my friend and me to exercise, but it also motivated my friend's mom, who joined her on walks. While our next bet has yet to be determined, I've been walking more and feel great. Consider getting yourself a workout buddy and placing a friendly wager. You might be surprised at how much more exercise you get.