Life is busy. Between work, family, and running your household, it can be hard to cram in a workout and see your friends, let alone have the chance to make new ones. There is plenty of pressure to get it all done, but it’s tough to be strong and fit and social.
Group fitness classes give you the chance to change all that. But group workouts are so much more than catching up or making connections over push ups. Once you drop into that class environment, you might work harder and better than you do on your own.
Just take it from the experts, like Bob Corb, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in sport psychology, the benefits of exercising with another person or a group go way beyond just bringing out your competitive nature. Exercise is important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as most people realize, but it’s easy to prioritize other things. “Group workouts promote ‘adherence;’ when there is a commitment to somebody else, we are more likely to show up,” Corb tells Men’s Health. Showing up is the first, and sometimes the hardest, part of a workout. By committing to a buddy or a team, you are less likely to back out of a workout because you don’t feel up to it.
Several theories help to back up these claims. According to Corb, most people exercise to improve some aspect of their life. Meanwhile, people are generally looking for some social comparison to gauge how we are doing. Corb explains that desire comes from the Social Comparison Theory, which states that people conduct self-assessments based on how they perceive they are doing compared to others. “By measuring oneself against similar people, this can help foster self-improvement because it shows that being better is possible,” he says. “Group workouts help provide that reference point for comparison in a way that working out alone does not.”
Strength in Numbers
Between all the CrossFit boxes, running clubs, and group classes out there, it seems like everyone is hopping into a group workout these days. This ubiquity may be because people are seeing results, both physically and emotionally. “Evidence says that people do work harder when they’re in a group setting because they are comparing themselves to each other and don’t want to look weak or lazy,” says Corb.
Michael Vanchieri, Doctor of Chiropractic, nutrition coach, fitness coach, and owner of Wildcard Sport and Spine LLC, knows first-hand how beneficial it can be to work out with friends. He has been doing group fitness workouts and coaching CrossFit athletes since 2012. “There’s a real tribal force in group fitness,” he explains. “Humans are community creatures. We want to fit in. A desire to fit into a well-run, safe, welcoming community will only turn people into better humans. You rise and fall to the level of those around you.”
But group fitness is more than peer pressure. The community aspect of it makes for a supportive and encouraging environment, as Corb says, but there’s more benefits than just giving you a reason to show up. Thanks to the positive social stimuli, you push harder. You reach higher. You run faster.
This culture has made sweating and staying fit a central aspect of our social lives. Making friends and spending time with them while doing something intrinsically good for yourself can give you both common ground to build stronger relationships and extrinsic motivation to live a healthier life.
Finding the Proper Balance With Group Fitness
That said, it’s not all rippling abs and high fives. There can be potential negative sides to group fitness. Corb says the same factors that motivate you can also work against you, especially if you find yourself falling behind. Working out with others can be highly motivating, but it can also push people to do things they are not prepared to do, and/or lead to feeling inadequate or “less than” if they can’t hang with the group.
Competitiveness can also take over the squad. “Good coaches ensure that the whole group is moving safely, efficiently, and in a way required to achieve the stimulus.” Vanchieri warns that if a facility becomes hyper-focused on competitiveness, “you may be trapped in an unhealthy tribe.”
The key to finding a balance between healthy competition and encouragement and negative groupthink and a toxic winner-take-all setting is all about the type of group fitness environment you wind up in. If you’re only training for fun, make sure that the group prioritizes experience over results. Likewise, if you want to level up, make sure that your fellow exercisers are willing to commit to hard work directed at a specific goal. “If you find yourself in a good one, be grateful as you’re destined to make tremendous gains in both the physical and emotional realms,” says Vanchieri. However, if you find yourself in a bad and unsupportive group, he warns you to head to the hills. “Get out and you’ll save yourself a lot of physical and emotional pain.”
No matter how strong and fit you are, you’re only human. The good news? So is everyone else who’s working out with you. If you’re able to create an environment that’s welcoming and driven toward the shared goals of the group, you’ll have a great time—and you’ll have your buddies and teammates to thank for it.