Why a pack mentality gets you more for your workout

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by Kaetlin Zink

Social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says that our need to connect with others is as essential as our need for food, water, and shelter.

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Think about it — at the end of a long, hectic week of work, hanging out with friends and having a good time is a great way to put your mind at ease. The same is true about interactive forms of exercise.

Plus, social interaction at the gym brings benefits outside the gym, too.

So why choose interactive versus solo exercise?

While working out in groups may not be the first choice for some, it can make exercise more fun when you’ve got others to joke around with and help take the edge off. At the same time, it’s great for those who may need an extra push or source of motivation.

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RUN HAC, HAC’s running club

According to Michael Yabut, Training Manager and National Trainer at TITLE Boxing Club International, LLC, in an article by Better,  having a group of people to exercise with routinely can increase consistency and commitment levels. When you’re surrounded by a group of people keeping you accountable and supporting you through the process, you’ll be less inclined to skip a workout or quit.

In a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 95% of participants who took a weight loss program with friends completed the program, compared to a 76% completion rate for those who enrolled in a program independently. Those in the group with friends were also 42% more likely to maintain their weight loss after the program ended (24% maintained progress in the solo group versus 66% in the friend group).

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Friends Katie Hook & Rhonda Bowman, participants in the 2018 Lifestyle Challenge

These findings suggest that more interaction at the gym can lead to sustained progress by strengthening commitment levels and feelings of togetherness.

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It also appears that working out in groups, especially with people you feel are in better shape than you, can promote confidence. This has a lot to do with the Kohler Effect, or the idea that no one wants to stand out as the weakest link in the group. In regards to exercise, working out with more experienced individuals can make you try harder, sometimes even pushing you beyond what you thought you were capable of.

This whole idea of wanting to do more because you’re interacting and having fun again comes into play. According to a study by the Society of Behavioral Medicine, working out with a partner, especially in a team-oriented setting, enhanced performance and even doubled the workout duration of those who exercised in a solitary setting.

One explanation for this could be the light-hearted, competitive nature that groups bring out of us. John Ford, a certified exercise physiologist (who also runs JKF Fitness & Health, a boutique training company) say that “seeing what others are capable of doing can inspire you to do more. I’ve personally had this experience,” he says. “Watching others made me realize I had some mental barriers up to pushing harder or trying different exercises/routines.”

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Smiling helps release endorphins, amplifying those “feel-good” emotions during group exercise, like this Strength Training for Runners small group personal training class

Mental Health Benefits

It is not new knowledge that exercise releases serotonin and other endorphins associated with “runner’s high,” which play a crucial role in lessening feelings of anxiety and depression. What you may not realize, Ford mentions, is that working out in group environments can result in the release of endorphins outside the realm of physical exertion. In several studies, the simple act of smiling has been associated with the release of endorphins related to interaction.

The kind of camaraderie you feel taking a group class, or working out with close friends, is no match for just your average runner’s high. Having people to struggle with will make you more motivated and energized to complete the workout, resulting in additional mood boosts aside from regular exercise benefits.

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FIT class participants with Master Personal Trainer, Dina Saitis

A study published in the International Journal of Stress Management showed that those who exercised on a stationary bike for just thirty minutes alongside a friend expressed feeling calmer than those who biked by themselves at the end of the workout.

Working out in groups can also be more fun. Researchers from the University of Southern California found that those who worked out with friends, a spouse, or co-worker, enjoyed themselves more than those who sweat alone.

So if you’re someone who doesn’t usually work out in groups, I encourage you to take these group exercise benefits into consideration and give it a try.

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