We've all seen it happen: finding the motivation to actually make it to 6 a.m. boot-camp with a friend; nailing the last round of squats when you see those around you powering through; or pushing yourself to shave time off your personal record when you run a 5k race. There is something to be said about the power of working out in a group — but what is it about exercising with others that motivates us?
We tapped some experts on the topic and learned that when it comes to workouts, there’s some truth to the old adage, “There’s strength in numbers.”
One study found that 95 percent of those who started a weight-loss program with friends completed the program.
“Group activity may not be a new concept but it has certainly seen massive international up-trends over the last twenty years with rapidly rising numbers in spin cycling, aerobic and dance-based classes and the emergence of CrossFit and its tribe mentality,” says Rob McGillivray, personal trainer and founder of RETROFIT. “I believe it to be a key indicator that working out in a motivational pack or using it as a tool to enhance internal or external competitive performance is fast becoming the preferred form of exercise.”
Not only is group fitness having a moment, but it's having a significant impact on our health, too.
Whether it’s a group fitness class at the gym or a run in the park with some friends, here are some of the specific benefits you can glean from working out in a group.
Increase your commitment to a fitness routine: “Working out with a crowd carries a plethora of intertwined benefits that include enhancing consistency, duration, motivation, conversation and inspiration,” says Dian Griesel, Ph.D., co-author of TurboCharged and president of public relations firm DGI. “Workouts with others improve consistency because they involve a commitment. ‘No shows’ and cancellations get noticed by others and positive peer pressure can help curtail the urges to skip a workout … or quit.”
One study found that 95 percent of those who started a weight-loss program with friends completed the program, compared to a 76 percent completion rate for those who tackled the program alone. The friend group was also 42 percent more likely to maintain their weight loss.
“For most people, it’s difficult to stay consistent with workout routines, but having a certain group there waiting for you provides you with the motivation and accountability everyone needs to be successful,” says Michael Yabut, Training Manager and National Trainer at TITLE Boxing Club International, LLC, who agrees that members of group fitness programs are less likely to skip workouts, which helps keep them on track.
Push yourself harder: The Köhler Effect is the idea that no one wants to be the weakest link in a group setting. When it comes to fitness, this translates to pushing yourself harder when tasked with working out with people who are fitter than you.
Those who exercised with a more-capable partner increased their plank time by 24 percent.
A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology set out to examine how true the effect really is — having participants perform a series of planks both alone and with a partner (whose performance was manipulated to always be better than the participants). What they found was that working with a partner produced a motivation gain that allowed the participants to hold their planks for a longer period of time. In fact, those who exercised with a more-capable partner increased their plank time by 24 percent.
Other studies confirm that working out with a partner significantly increases time spent exercising. A study by the Society of Behavioral Medicine showed that working with a partner, especially in a team format, improved performance, doubling the workout time of those who exercised alone.
It seems that opting for a group setting for at least a few workouts each week may help you push yourself past the threshold you tend to hit when working out solo — whether that be in time or intensity.
Get a competitive edge: One reason why you may push yourself harder when others are grunting alongside of you is the innate competitive streak in all of us. “Group settings can lead to a positive competitiveness. For instance, wanting to keep up with those around you can make you push yourself harder than you would on your own,” says John Ford, certified exercise physiologist, who runs JKF Fitness & Health (a boutique training company) in New York City. “Seeing what others are capable of doing can inspire you to do more. I’ve personally had this experience: Watching others made me realize I had put some mental barriers up to pushing harder or trying different exercises/routines.”
Researchers at Kansas State University found that people who exercised with someone they thought was better than them increased their workout time and intensity by 200 percent.
"We found that when you're performing with someone who you perceive as a little better than you, you tend to give more effort than you normally would alone,” says Brandon Irwin, assistant professor of kinesiology, and principle researcher in the study. “In certain fitness goals, like preparing to run a marathon, consider exercising not only with someone else, but with someone who is that much better. For an extra boost, consider some type of team exercise that involves competition, like playing basketball at a regular time throughout the week."
Capitalize on endorphins: “Group workouts can have a couple of mental advantages over solo workouts. While it’s true that working out releases endorphins (think of all of that talk of a runner’s highs), a group setting can lead to the release of endorphins outside of just physical exertion,” says Ford. “One way is through smiling. Smiling has been shown to increase endorphin levels in studies. So when you’re in a great class or with a great bunch of people working out, that kind of conviviality can really make you feel great outside of just your runner’s high. An added benefit of this mood boost is that when you’re pushing yourself hard and struggling through more difficult parts of your workout you’ll feel better and more energized to complete the exercises.”
A study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that people who exercised on a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes with a friend said they felt calmer after the workout than those who cycled alone. And it’s also just more fun: Researchers from the University of Southern California found that people who worked out with friends (or a spouse or co-worker) said they enjoyed the exercise more than those who sweat it out alone. Add that to the list of reasons why working out with others may encourage you to make fitness a habit that sticks.
Diversify your workouts: Another benefit of having a plus one at the gym? “Having spotters to make sure that you’re performing an exercise correctly and can do said exercises to failure in a safe manner,” says Ford. “In some instances, having a partner can even help you do exercises that you couldn’t do on your own. Think partner assisted pull-ups.”
There are only so many exercises you a perform alone — throw other person into the mix and you’re able to really get creative. “There are so many fun fitness moves that require having a partner or multiple partners,” adds Ford. “Just trying doing medicine ball toss sit-ups by yourself, it can make you feel really lonely in a hurry. Having multiple people around can really open up a creative catalog of exercises: from partner resisted moves (hey, stop sitting on my back during push-ups!) to relays the options are plentiful and fun.”
Find support — and accountability — in being part of a team: “I believe the best way to workout is in a group setting. For several years, I have taught hundreds of classes, from yoga to boxing, and the best part of it all is the fun that participants have in their workouts,” says Yabut. “It’s an amazing feeling to see [people] do things they never thought they could until it took the person next to them to encourage them to complete that set, rep, mile or round. There’s a bond that is created when a group struggles, sweats, fights, and grinds their way through a tough workout. I focus on building relationships in class because if that happens, I know participants will come back tomorrow.”
“When we work out with other people we can gain a sense of camaraderie, because everyone is there for the same purpose,” agrees Davina Wong, Master Trainer at Club Pilates. “The people you see each week in a group class eventually become your family and want to see you back each week creating accountability.”
There’s a bond that is created when a group struggles, sweats, fights and grinds their way through a tough workout.
And once that group workout is scheduled into your calendar, with other people banking on you showing up, it’s a whole lot harder to hit snooze a second time and roll back over.
“Participants leave happy to have ‘got their workout in,’ to have maintained their record of attendance and relationships, and to have survived another day in a healthy capacity within their fitness community,” McGillivray adds. “They look forward to the next encounter — Whether that encounter is craved due to fitness-related goals or the personal relationships cultivated, it is a win-win scenario for the participant's physical and mental state of health.”
Get external motivation when you’re dragging: Being a part of this type of community can provide a huge boost of motivation beyond the one that comes with the physical benefits of a workout, which can be helpful for those finding it hard to stay committed.
“Motivation improves because group workouts are often filled with encouragement; ‘You can do it!’ cheers and other accolades from others keep the energy and motivation high,” says Griesel. “Inspiration benefits because in a group there is always the one who ‘seems to do it best’ and becomes the ‘reach’ for the group.”
“Working out with other people creates a high level of motivation among one another, especially when someone has a good day,” agrees Wong. “The positive vibes are infectious and spread throughout the class like wildfire, creating a positive attitude and environment for the whole class.”
Think of how much you could benefit from a little encouragement when dragging yourself through those three miles on the treadmill. “When you work out with the right people or in the right class you get uplifted and encouraged to be your best,” says Ford. “All those shouts to do one more, or push to the finish line, plus the high fives and pats on the back for completing sets and accomplishing personal bests create amazing positive feedback loops. And just like with smiling, trigger the release of hormones that make you feel good. All these things can make sure that you stick with your workouts and wellness routine.”
While working out in the company of others can help take your workout to the next level, it is important to be aware of some of the dangers that come with exercising in a group setting.
“One of the biggest issues I’ve noticed is assumed levels of fitness. Many of the moves that are most easily done in classes (squats, lunges, bent over rows, etc.) require that you already have the proper technique mastered and the core strength and stabilizing muscles to correctly and safely perform the moves,” says Ford. “If you lack any of [this], pushing to do the exercises and allotted reps can often result in depending too heavily on your spine and joints and lead to injuries.”
That’s why some experts recommend sticking to cardio-based classes when challenging yourself in a group or partner setting, since strength training and high-intensity exercises are so personalized and can require individual instruction.
“Having people around to push you can be a great thing, but it can also be a bad thing," warns Ford. "There’s a lot we can do in the moment when trying to keep up with or impress those around us, but it doesn’t mean that we should do those things or were capable of doing those things. Finding the right intensity level of a class and workout buddies is super important."
The competitive spirit can also backfire if it encourages you to push yourself too far beyond your physical abilities. “There may be people who are more competitive than others and may compare themselves to others around them. Nothing is wrong with friendly competition, however, if these people don't listen to their body and understand their limitations, it can lead to injury,” says Wong.
If you’re new to fitness, or to a certain type of workout, it may be best to start solo before jumping into a group setting. “Group settings aren’t always the best teaching settings. It’s hard to get individualized attention to make sure that you’re doing everything correctly,” says Ford. “Even more importantly, the attention to your body to see where you might have weaknesses or imbalances that can lead to health problems down the line. One on one instruction can be great in terms of addressing your body’s specific needs.”
Learning the basics is also important to feeling comfortable in class: One study found working out with others in a mirrored room (like most yoga studios) made untrained women feel self-conscious and uncomfortable.
“I would just emphasize to make sure that you find a group of people or class that fits your personality,” says Ford.
So if you hate bike riding, perhaps a spin class isn’t for you. And if you’ve never boxed before, consider a training session one-on-one before jumping into the ring with a group.
“Remember: It should be a fun time that is enhanced by the people around you,” Ford adds.
And if it can be on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Hudson River, even better.