Robot coaches might be better motivators than human ones

Being human can get in the way of getting in shape: we chow on bad food, we sit on the couch when we'd be better off going for a walk, and we pay for gym memberships but don't go.

Now scientists at Michigan State University have discovered that with a robot as a taskmaster, humans work out longer and harder than alone — and perhaps better than with human coaches, too.

The researchers used an Eye Toy camera with a Playstation 2 to test 200 subjects' endurance performing a series of five exercises including the plank, a difficult move where people have to hold the push-up prep position for as long as possible.

First, the subjects did the exercises on their own. Then they did the same exercises with a virtual coach with "superior athletic abilities." Subjects coached by a virtual partner exercised 24 percent longer than those who exercised alone. It's evidence that the "Kohler effect" — the idea the inferior team members perform better in a group — holds true with video games.

The researchers also believe exercising with a robot coach might help with motivation, since pesky human anxiety sometimes prevents us from hitting the gym when it's been a while.

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