Are exercise classes really worth it? They cost money, require travel time to and from the gym or studio, and are oftentimes a full hour when thirty minutes is all you really need. Many of us these days are opting out of group exercise classes and are instead opening up the latest exercise app on our phones and going it alone in the comfort of our homes. But is this really the way to go? While working out alone is often easier on your schedule and wallet, you might be missing out on the huge health benefits that come from in-person, social interaction and community.
Studies show that social connectedness ranks right up there with what you eat and how often you exercise when assessing lifestyle practices for a healthier and longer life. Social interaction is in fact one of the characteristics that centurion populations are built upon, and is a key reason why Spain is projected to surpass Japan in 2040 with the longest life expectancy at 85.8 years.
A recent report published in Annals of Family Medicine outlines a wellness program called Running Medicine that takes place in 6 urban areas in New Mexico and incorporates meditation, stretching, a 30 to 40-minute walk/run, core strengthening, and a cool down that includes a closing inspirational message. While this may sound pretty basic, the group usually consists of 80 to 100 individuals and utilizes tools that focus on community – such as encouragement throughout the run, warming up in a large circle with children placed in the center, and a handshake line to conclude the session. Running Medicine is run by local healthcare practitioners and is supported by many community partners.
Approaching wellness in this way has been extremely successful in promoting a health-centric community. 90% of Running Medicine participants said the program has improved their mental and physical health, as well as their social support.
Research supports what Running Medicine creators already know to be true – exercising in a group offers additional health benefits when compared to exercising alone. A 2017 study conducted in 69 medical students (25 in a group fitness class, 29 in a health enhancement group working out alone or with 2 additional partners regularly, and 15 in a control group consisting of no regular exercise) showed that those participating in the group fitness class over a 12-week period experienced significantly lower perceived stress levels, and increased physical, mental, and emotional quality of life. Significant improvements in these areas were not observed in the other two groups.
Working out “in sync”, a common characteristic of group fitness classes such as yoga, indoor cycling, and dance, has also been proven to exponentially increase the benefits of exercise. A 2013 study showed that those who rowed in-sync on rowing machines had higher pain tolerances than those who rowed alone. Those who rowed in-sync with teammates had an even higher tolerance than those who rowed in-sync with strangers. Scientists hypothesize that this is an example of how building community and social bonds increase the release of endorphins (or the “feel good” hormone), in turn upping pain tolerance. A study in rugby players showed similar results. Warming up with synchronized movements resulted in better performance on an endurance test. Researchers believe that the process of warming up together emphasized the players’ social bonds, improving performance.
While this research might make all of us want to join a local group fitness program, a review study makes it evident that not all group fitness is created equal. The 2006 study showed that social connectedness matters in assessing whether or not your fitness class is really better than working out alone. Exercising in a true group class, one that emphasizes techniques to encourage social interaction and community (like Running Medicine), results in the greatest benefit. Group fitness classes that don’t encourage social interaction result in lesser benefits that are equal to at home workouts that include a point of contact (a health coach or a virtual community, for example). Working out alone without a point of contact results in the least amount of benefits. In short, the more social interactions, bonding, and community building that exists within the fitness class setting, the better the benefits.
As we set our health goals for 2020, signing up for exercise/studio classes that encourage socializing is worth the investment. Even better, investigate offerings in your area for outdoor group fitness. Exercising outdoors with a group is the trifecta combination that will benefit your health far beyond just exercising alone at home.