The Power of Working Out Together
Discover how training in a fitness community can improve your performance, keep you accountable, and help you tap into a greater sense of purpose.
It’s 6:30 on a chilly morning at Tower 26, a lifeguard station on a quiet stretch of beach between Santa Monica and Venice, Calif. The tourists are still asleep; the Ferris wheel, quiet and dark. For now, the beach belongs to the LA Tri Club.
There are more than 40 of them, men and women of all ages, eyeing the slate-gray ocean. It looks cold, but the group is undeterred. They don swim caps and goggles, zip up wetsuits, and give one another encouraging slaps on the back.
Then they plunge into the Pacific.
For the next 75 minutes, they navigate surf, crest big waves, and practice staying on course to a distant buoy; they swim back and forth, over and over again. They keep an eye out for one another, cheer each other on, and talk trash now and then. It’s a tough workout, but they all get through it, finishing the session energized and alive.
“The first time I swam in the ocean I was a bit nervous,” says club managing director Deb Carabet. “But the other members taught me not to panic. They held my hand as we went through the surf.”
Without the group, she says, she never would have tried ocean swimming, much less her most recent adventure — a half-Ironman race this past July that included more than a mile of open-water swimming.
For many people, fitness is a solitary pursuit: Go to the gym, notch a workout, get on with your day. Many fitness programs and gyms cater to this trend, prioritizing convenience over conviviality in their services and classes.
But, like those in the LA Tri Club’s Ocean Swim class, many fitness-minded people — as well as the health clubs and specialty studios they frequent — are discovering the value of working out with a group of like-minded friends, acquaintances, coaches, and trainers.
Ask what they get out of it and you’ll hear reports of camaraderie, motivation, and friendly competition, all of which lead, they say, to better performance and greater fitness — and, perhaps most important, more enjoyment.
Simply put, individuals who are active in fitness communities are finding they can get more done, reach goals faster, and blast through plateaus more quickly than they might on their own.
Nearly a century ago, researchers discovered that people in groups tend to work harder than when they’re working alone, a dynamic known as the Köhler effect. When a team’s performance is determined by that of its weakest link — a mountain-climbing expedition in which all members are tethered together, for example — the weaker member performs significantly better compared with his or her best solo efforts.
If you ever pick out stronger/faster/fitter students in a fitness class and try to outpace them at pushups, squats, or laps around the gym — regardless of whether they know you’ve selected them as your “rabbits” to chase — you’ll often perform better. That’s the Köhler effect at work. It happens unconsciously whenever people exercise together.
“I’ve been on teams my whole life,” says David Freeman, OPEX, CCP, NASM-PES, national manager for Life Time’s Alpha program, which focuses on Olympic lifting and strength training in a group setting. A pushup is a pushup — but when you work out in a group, he says, “it gives you a sense of greater purpose.”
A fitness community amps up performance while infusing the practice with something that can be hard to find on your own: meaning.
One of the biggest benefits of a fitness community is right there in the word community. We are social animals, and interacting with others is good for us. Whether we’re getting together with family for dinner, friends for golf, or acquaintances for a martial-arts class, research demonstrates that groups can benefit us.
A 2010 report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior noted that “social relationships — both quantity and quality — affect mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk.” People with more and better social ties, researchers found, demonstrated better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and less susceptibility to cancer; those with fewer and lower-quality social contacts exhibited more inflammation and poorer immune function.
For some people, fitness communities play a role usually filled by traditional social networks — neighbors, religious groups, extended families — which have become less integral to our time-crunched, digitally driven lives.
“A lot of us lead a solitary existence,” says Andrea Jones, cofounder of boutique fitness clubs in Minnesota and Colorado. “More and more people work from home, or maybe at a coffee shop on a laptop, so they spend much of the day by themselves.”
As a result, fitness communities have all the more value, she explains. “You get one hour when you can feel that people are supporting you, where you don’t have to do it all yourself.”
Add vigorous movement to the equation, and you have a beneficial, self-reinforcing cycle.
“Play fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community,” writes National Institute for Play founder Stuart Brown in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.
Fitness communities thus create a virtuous circle: They support and enhance health, while health-building movement enhances the sense of community.
Recreational sports teams and clubs have been around for decades, but the boom in fitness communities within gyms has its roots in group fitness. Organized exercise classes showed gym-goers that the health club could be their so-called third place, after home and work.
Increasingly, they’re seeking a more personalized, community feel to their training, programs in which they’re not just clients but real people with names and lives and interests and feelings. Health clubs have taken up the challenge of catering to this growing, social clientele.
Group fitness classes and training programs, such as Life Time’s Alpha and GTX, are increasingly popular. In addition to getting fit, people use these sessions to build friendships and to network. Social-media connections help support in-person relationships, says Freeman. And races, weightlifting competitions, coffee gatherings, potlucks, and other real-life outings naturally arise as a result.
Suddenly, a gym becomes more than just a gym. It’s a place you can turn to for improving your physical fitness as well as cultivating a sense of connection and belonging.
Solitary workouts can be effective and enjoyable. But coaches, trainers, and other experts have found that some people have better experiences and achieve better outcomes when they don’t walk the path to fitness alone.
Scientists have attempted to quantify and qualify these successes, but study results have been mixed and dependent on the size of the group and behavior being tested. (And if you’ve participated in or even observed the burgeoning group fitness trend at your own gym or health club, you’ve likely noticed that the types of classes offered, the goals being pursued, and the sizes of the groups are highly variable.)
But gyms and gym-goers don’t seem to need convincing that working out as part of a group is worthwhile. Anecdotally, say Freeman and other trainers, people seem to perform better when someone is watching them: Coaching, cueing, and spotting provide practical, often personalized, feedback.
Moreover, there’s an apparent benefit to feeling accountable to a larger group. This is illustrated, in part, by colloquial language that describes fitness communities as families and teams in which people find encouragement, physically and emotionally.
By virtue of their size and diversity, fitness communities can offer a wide variety of feedback and support — something you can’t always get when working solo, or even with a single trainer or workout buddy.
“Sometimes you need a motivator,” says Freeman, a drill-sergeant type who refuses to take no for an answer.
“Other times you need a nurturer,” an encouraging, helpful teammate or coach who talks you through rough patches. “As a single coach, I can’t be everything to everybody,” he admits. “That’s where the community takes over.”
In a group, inspiration can come from almost anywhere. Many mentors — peers, advanced students, teachers, and team leaders — are available to provide the right coaching cues to help you master an exercise; the right phrase to help you persevere though a difficult workout; or the right strategy to get you on track to your next goal.
“Practically from birth, we’re looking for role models,” says Freeman. “In middle school, you look up to the high schoolers; in high school, you look up to the college kids. Whenever you’re at a pivot point — trying to get better or make a change — there’s nothing more motivating than having someone around who says, ‘I’ll go with you.’”
Competition is strong medicine: It can discourage or motivate, beat you down or lift you up.
Some groups embrace fitness as a contest. Online or at the gym, there are often prominent lists showing who lifts the most, runs the fastest, and jumps the highest.
“In some communities it’s all about the leaderboard,” says Jones. If you’re not on it, you want to be, and if you are, you want to climb to the top.
This emphasis on the fitness hierarchy in a group may fire some people up — but it can drive others away.
Still, healthy competition might be the special sauce that lends flavor to a fitness community. And it doesn’t have to take the form of a whiteboard listing everybody’s top lifts. Simply exercising alongside others can be enough to light a competitive fire.
“Part of the reason I love weekly rides with the tri club is that I can keep an eye on the other athletes,” says Joey Doran, 36, an LA Tri Club member and frequent podium finisher.
By trying their best in group workouts with closely matched people of similar fitness levels, Doran and his fellow athletes push one another to greater fitness and performance; no accolade, external recognition, or even explicit acknowledgment of their rivalry is required.
Such enjoyable-but-high-stakes workouts are a prime example of what David Light Shields, PhD, a sports psychologist and professor of behavioral science specializing in athletics at St. Louis Community College, calls “true competition.” This involves mutually respectful individuals striving to overcome their opponents and bring out the best in one another, says Shields, author of True Competition. Focus and playfulness are balanced. Positive emotions prevail.
Competition isn’t always so rosy, of course (see “3 Solutions for Overcoming Group Pitfalls,” below), but in a supportive fitness community, it can become the rule rather than the exception.
“A competitive environment puts people into an aspirational mindset,” says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Damon Centola, PhD, author of How Behavior Spreads.
His study of online health networks found that members who interacted within competitive social settings exercised more to keep up with the highest performers; members who interacted in supportive social settings were influenced by the poor performers and went to the gym less often.
Centola’s research suggests that, compared with other exercise incentives — such as peer support or
monetary incentives — friendly competition is by far the most effective way to motivate healthy behavior change.
Two years ago, Deb Cabaret’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When word got out to members of the LA Tri Club, she says, “40 people came out to do a race benefitting cancer research. They rallied around him.”
Over the years, she says, club members have been injured and sick, and members consistently showed up to support them. Members have dated, married, and had kids.
“It’s a real community,” says Carabet. “And it’s lovely.”
This originally appeared as “Fit Together” in the December 2018 print issue of Experience Life.