The inﬂuence of close others’exercise habits and perceived social
support on exercise
Susan D. Darlow
, Xiaomeng Xu
Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA
Received 23 August 2010
Received in revised form
31 March 2011
Accepted 24 April 2011
Available online 30 April 2011
Objectives: Exercise rates are low, but perceived support from close others can inﬂuence exercise habits.
The purpose of the study was to examine the inﬂuence of perceived support for exercise as well as close
others’exercise habits on own exercise, and to examine the differential effects of friend’s exercise and
romantic partner’s exercise.
Design: Undergraduates (N¼220) at a northeastern university completed questionnaires on their own
exercise habits, their romantic partner’s and best friend’s exercise habits, and perceived support for
Results: Friend’s exercise was associated with own exercise, but only when perceived support was high.
Being male, partner’s exercise, and friend’s exercise all independently predicted own exercise.
Conclusions: Exercise habits of close others are associated with one’s own exercise habits, though this
relationship may vary depending on perceived support. Attention should be paid to women’s exercise
habits, since they are less likely to exercise than men.
Ó2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Exercise increases longevity, prevents obesity, and reduces risk
of some chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease and
hypertension (U.S. DHHS, 1996). Exercise also beneﬁts mental
health, with positive effects on depressive symptoms (Ross &
Hayes, 1998) and anxiety (Sallis & Owen, 1999). Exercise is also
related to high self-esteem and overall quality of life (McAuley &
Rudolph, 1995). Despite the many beneﬁts of exercise, rates of
activity among people who live in the United States are extraordi-
narily low, with over half not engaging in the recommended
amount of physical activity (CDC, 2007). These low rates are trou-
bling given the association between exercise and decreased risk of
Support from close others can inﬂuence exercise (Courneya,
Plotnikoff, Hotz, & Birkett, 2000). Behavior can be encouraged by
close others, and people may be more likely to engage in behaviors
when their close others do so. Exercise may be modeled by close
others, and these close others may also provide praise during
exercise, as well as opportunities to exercise (Sallis & Hovell, 1990).
Therefore, support to exercise can occur in a variety of forms. For
example, positive feedback from close others, as well as close
others being physically active, is related to greater physical activity
(Booth, Owen, Bauman, Clavisi, & Leslie, 2000). Since women tend
to afﬁliate with their social networks more than men do (Taylor,
2002), it is possible that the impact of social support may be
more robust for women. This is illustrated by studies demon-
strating the importance of support on women’s exercise habits
(Castro, Sallis, Hickmann, Lee, & Chen, 1999; Eyler et al., 1999).
Other studies have shown that exercise habits of both men and
women are impacted by perceived social support (Leslie, Owen,
Salmon, Bauman, & Sallis, 1999). The inﬂuence of close others’
exercise may vary depending on whether the close other is
a romantic partner or a friend. While romantic partner’s exercise
has been shown to be related to one’s own exercise (Booth et al.,
2000; Wallace, Raglin, & Jastremski, 1995), less research has been
done on the impact of friend’s exercise. Some studies have exam-
ined differences in support to exercise from family and friends
(Eyler et al., 1999), and a measure has also been developed that
assesses support from various speciﬁc close others (Sallis,
Grossman, Pinski, Patterson, & Nader, 1987), but few studies have
examined differences in the impact of the exercise habits of close
others. When close others engage in a behavior, they model the
behavior. On the other hand, people may seek out close others who
engage in the same behaviors. Much of the research on social
support and behavior fails to examine whether the relationship
between close others’behavior and one’s own behavior will vary
depending on the identity of the close other.
*Corresponding author. Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony
Brook, NY 11794-2500, USA. Tel.: þ1 631 632 9208; fax: þ1 631 632 7876.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (S.D. Darlow).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Psychology of Sport and Exercise
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1469-0292/$ esee front matter Ó2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12 (2011) 575e578
The purpose of the study was to examine the inﬂuence of
perceived support for exercise as well as close others’perceived
exercise habits on one’s own exercise. Differences in the inﬂuence
of romantic partner’s as opposed to best friend’s exercise were
examined, and the role of gender was also considered. We
hypothesized that perceived support for exercise and perceived
partner’s and friend’s exercise would all predict own exercise. We
also predicted that levels of own exercise would be greatest when
both support for exercise and close others’exercise was high, and
this hypothesis was examined by testing interactive effects. We
believed that friends’exercise habits would be just as important as
that of a romantic partner and that hypothesized effects would be
stronger for women than for men.
Undergraduates at a public northeastern university who were
required to fulﬁll research participation requirements participated
in the study. Since a focus of the study was to compare perceived
exercise habits of friends and romantic partners, only participants
in a romantic relationship were included (N¼220). Participants
reported on the perceived exercise habits of their best friend and
their romantic partner. Participants’age ranged from 18 to 26
(M¼18.9), and gender was 56.4% female and 43.6% male. The racial
self-identiﬁcation of participants was as follows: 40.9% Asian
American/Paciﬁc Islander, 31.4% European American, 14.5% other/
mixed, 7.3% Latino/Hispanic, 5.5% African-American/Black, and .5%
Participants ﬁlled out computer questionnaires as part of a larger
departmental mass testing session and received credit toward
a research participation requirement.
Own exercise, as well as perceived partner’s and friend’sexer-
cise were assessed using the Godin Leisure Time Exercise Ques-
tionnaire (Godin & Shephard, 1985). This psychometrically robust
four-item questionnaire assessed frequency of mild, moderate,
and strenuous exercise (deﬁned for respondents in the instruc-
tions). Participants ﬁlled out the questionnaire three times: once
for own exercise, once for romantic partners’exercise, and again for
best friends’exercise. A composite exercise score was created for
own, partner’s, and friend’s exercise by weighting mild, moderate,
and vigorous exercise accordingly.
Perceived support for exercise was measured by one item: “How
much support do you receive for participating in regular physical
activity from the people closest to you?”The item was scored on a ﬁve
point scale, with “1”being “None at all”and “5”being “Very much.”
We also measured Body Mass Index (BMI), which was calculated
from participants’self-reported height and weight. The following
standard formula was used: (wt
Data was inspected for outliers, non-normality, and missing data.
Descriptive statistics and correlations were calculated, and inde-
pendent samples t-tests were conducted to examine gender differ-
ences. Hierarchical regression analysis was conducted for own
exercise. BMI, gender, perceived support for exercise, and perceived
friend’s and partner’s exercise were entered on Step One. Perceived
support and friend’s and partner’s exercise were centered at the
grand mean. All six two-way interactions were entered on Step Two:
gender support, gender friend’s exercise, gender partner’s
exercise, support friend’s exercise, support partner’sexercise,
and friend’sexercisepartner’s exercise. All four three-way inter-
actions were entered on Step Three. The four-way interaction was
entered on Step Four. Therefore, we tested all possible interactions
among study variables in order to detect any moderating effects.
Statistically signiﬁcant interactions are described ﬁrst, followed by
signiﬁcant main effects. We report results from the full model only
(i.e. all main effects and interactions entered), as these provide the
strongest test of study hypotheses. Signiﬁcant interactions were
inspected using simple slopes analyses.
Descriptivestatistics and correlationsbetween study variables for
the sample are reported in Table 1. We tested for multicollinearity by
examining variance inﬂation factors, none of which exceeded 4.0,
indicating no problems with multicollinearity (Kleinbaum, Kupper,
Muller, & Nizam, 1998). Independent samples t-tests examining
gender differences for support for exercise and own, partner’s, and
friend’s exercise were not statistically signiﬁcant.
Results of the hierarchical regression are displayed in Table 2.
We found a signiﬁcant gender support friend’s exercise inter-
action, t(203) ¼3.14, p<.01, r¼.22. Simple slopes analysis revealed
that when support to exercise was high (at least one standard
deviation above the mean), friend’s exercise was associated with
own exercise for both men, simple slope ¼.42, t(203) ¼2.40,
p<.05, and women, simple slope ¼.71, t(203) ¼2.41, p<.05.
Friend’s exercise was not signiﬁcantly associated with own exercise
when perceived support was low (at least one standard deviation
below the mean) for both men and women.
A signiﬁcant support friend’s exercise interaction was found,
t(203) ¼2.61, p<.05, r¼.18, but the simple slopes analysis
indicated no signiﬁcant trends. The interaction of friend’s exercise
and partner’s exercise marginally predicted own exercise,
t(203) ¼1.96, p¼.05, r¼.14. When partner’s exercise was low
(at least one standard deviation below the mean), friend’s exercise
was associated with own exercise, simple slope ¼.30, t(203) ¼3.32,
p<.01. Friend’s exercise was not associated with own exercise
when partner exercise was at average or above average levels.
Analyses of main effects show that being male, t(203) ¼2.63,
p<.01, friend’s exercise, t(203) ¼3.36, p<.01, and partner’sexer-
cise, t(203) ¼3.77, p<.001, were independently associated with
With exercise rates being low, it is important to examine
predictors of exercise, such as perceived social support. Findings
Correlations, means, and standard deviations of study variables for entire sample
Variables BMI Support Own
BMI e.04 .12 .02 .18**
Support for exercise e.18* .08 .15*
Own exercise e.45*** .47***
Partner exercise e.40***
Friend exercise e
M22.8 2.3 32.7 33.9 30.6
SD 4.2 1.2 28.4 32.0 31.1
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001. Note: range of values: BMI (15e39), support (0e4),
own exercise (0e133), partner exercise (0e136), friend exercise (0e136).
S.D. Darlow, X. Xu / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12 (2011) 575e578576
demonstrated that perceived exercise habits of both best friends
and romantic partners are independently associated with one’s
own exercise habits, when controlling for body weight. There are
a few possible explanations for this association. First, friends and
romantic partners may model exercise behavior. That is, people
may exercise based on what they see their close others doing.
Actions taken by close others that one admires suggest that the
behavior being engaged in is desirable and normal (Christakis &
Fowler, 2007). Engaging in the same behaviors as a close other
provides opportunities to spend time together and also provides
a conversation topic. Finally, itis also likely that we seek out friends
and romantic partners who are similar to us or who engage in
similar health behaviors such as eating and physical activity habits
(Bahr, Browning, Wyatt, & Hill, 2009).
The perceived exercise habits of friends were associated with
own exercise, but only when perceived support for exercise was at
least above average. Although this trend was found for both men
and women, the association was stronger for women, who we
found reported less exercise than men. Men are more likely than
women to engage in recommended levels of physical activity (U.S.
DHHS, 1996). Women tend to perceive more barriers to exercise
than men do (Lee, 1993), and some women feel discouraged from
exercising by their close others, or feel self-conscious in an exercise
environment (King et al., 2000). Men, on the other hand, may be
expected to exercise or do not experience similar levels of self-
consciousness, as men are highly visible in professional sports
(Hargreaves, 1994). Therefore, support from close others may be
important for women since they are less likely to initiate physical
This study had several strengths. First, most studies of social
support and exercise focus on romantic partners (Booth et al., 2000;
Pettee et al., 2006). Few studies examine the impact of a best
friend’s exercise habits. We compared the impact of a romantic
partner’s exercise habits, as well as that of a close friend. We found
that both factors impact one’s own exercise habits, but future
research should continue to examine how the two types of close
others inﬂuence individuals in different ways. We also considered
social support in two different ways. Not only did we ask partici-
pants to indicate the degree to which they perceive support to
exercise, we also considered the perceived amount of exercise close
others engage in as a form of support. Finally, the statistical anal-
yses that we conducted were comprehensive in that they accoun-
ted for both main effects and interactions between study variables.
In other words, this test of study hypotheses included an exami-
nation of multiple factors associated with physical activity in one
model, in order to assess independent effects of these factors, as
well as interactions.
The study is not without its limitations. First, all questionnaires
were self-report in which participants indicated their perceptions
of their close others’exercise. Therefore, it is possible that they may
have over- or under-estimated their close others’exercise. Also, our
measure of support consisted of one item. There are measures that
are designed to assess support for exercise (Sallis et al., 1987), and
ﬁndings should be replicated using these measures. Third, we
included only participants in a romantic relationship. It is possible
that friend’s exercise will have a different impact for someone who
is not in a romantic relationship. Finally, our study lacked a theo-
retical framework, such as that provided by the theory of planned
behavior (Ajzen & Madden, 1986). However, testing the validity of
a health behavior theory was beyond the scope of this study, as the
purpose of the study was to examine associations of close others’
exercise, perceived social support, and gender with one’sown
This study demonstrated the impact of close others on exercise.
We showed that the perceived exercise of close others is associated
with one’s exercise habits, with friend’s exercise only being asso-
ciated with own exercise when there is perceived support to do so.
Future research should explore why perceived support to exercise
may moderate the inﬂuence of the exercise habits of friends but not
romantic partners. Future studies should also investigate how other
factors such as self-efﬁcacy and attitudes toward exercise interact
with perceived support and perceived exercise by close others to
impact own exercise. Social support is important for engaging in
health behaviors. By further exploring the different ways in which
Hierarchical regression for variables predicting own exercise (N¼220).
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
BMI .35 .40 .05 .36 .41 .05 .51 .40 .07 .47 .40 .07
Gen 5.57 3.33 .10 6.10 3.46 .11 9.50 3.57 .17** 9.39 3.58 .17**
Supp 2.61 1.35 .11 3.07 1.98 .13 3.26 2.05 .14 2.73 2.15 .12
F ex .27 .06 .30*** .27 .09 .29** .31 .09 .33** .30 .09 .33**
P ex .30 .06 .33*** .33 .10 .37** .38 .10 .43*** .38 .10 .43***
Gen Supp .65 2.79 .02 1.19 2.86 .04 .66 2.93 .02
Gen F ex .00 .12 .00 .04 .12 .03 .02 .13 .01
Gen Pex .04 .13 .04 .15 .13 .13 .13 .13 .11
Supp F ex .01 .05 .01 .18 .07 .26* .19 .07 .28*
Supp P ex .03 .05 .04 .10 .07 .14 .09 .07 .13
FexP ex .00 .00 .03 .00 .00 .17 .00 .00 .18
Gen Supp Fex .31 .10 .33** .31 .10 .33**
Gen Supp Pex .10 .10 .10 .08 .10 .09
xPex .00 .00 .14 .01 .00 .16
Supp FexPex .00 .00 .03 .00 .00 .09
Gen Supp FexPex .00 .00 .09
.32 .33 .38 .38
Ffor change in R
20.41*** .11 4.40** .67
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001. Note: Gen ¼gender; Supp ¼support; F ex ¼friend’s exercise; P ex ¼partner’s exercise.
S.D. Darlow, X. Xu / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12 (2011) 575e578 577
support from close others can inﬂuence healthy behaviors, ways
that social support can be incorporated into exercise interventions
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