The way we exercise and who we choose to do it with is a very personal thing, but new research suggests that working out in a group setting has its advantages, resulting in significant improvements to physical, mental, and emotional measures. Those who workout alone, by contrast, experience virtually no changes in stress levels or perceived levels of fitness, at least those in the study—even though they tend to put in more effort.
New research published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association shows that working out in a group setting lowers stress by 26 percent (on average) compared to those who exercise by themselves. Those who prefer solo exercise sessions tend to workout for longer, experience no significant changes in stress levels, and limited improvements to quality of life. The new research, led by Dayna Yorks from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, was limited to medical students, but the findings may hold implications for the general population as well.
Importantly, this study doesn’t tell us whether we get fitter or stronger when working out as an individual versus a group, but it does suggest that group settings are better when it comes to the psychological and emotional aspects of working out (an understated benefit of exercise). That said, exercising in a group makes people feel better about their physical well being, which can be tremendously motivating.
“The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone,” said Yorks in a statement. “The findings support the concept of a mental, physical and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians.”
For the study, Yorks and her colleagues recruited 69 medical students—a group known for high levels of stress and self-reported low quality of life. The students were asked to join either a 12-week exercise program, which they would complete in either a group setting or as individuals. Those who chose to work out in a group were enrolled in a CXWORX program (core strength and functional fitness training), which required them to workout for 30 minutes at least once a week. Those who chose individual workouts were allowed to participate in any exercise regimen of their choosing, such as running or weight lifting, but they had to exercise alone or with no more than two partners.
So this sample pool, in addition to being quite small, was not random; they were all med students and they were all given the choice of working out alone or doing it in groups (rather than being assigned). And in fact, this did result in some selection effects. The students who enrolled themselves into the group setting had lower baseline emotional ratings compared to the other two groups (the individual, and control group which involved no exercise). “It is possible that those who self-selected into the fitness class group were looking for a means of improving their emotional [quality of life],” wrote the researchers in their study.
The students were asked to complete a survey every four weeks, in which they rated their levels of perceived stress and quality of life across three categories: mental, physical, and emotional. After 12 weeks, the mean monthly survey scores displayed improvements across all domains for the students who chose to work out in a group setting. Specifically, they reported a 12.6 percent increase in mental health, a 24.8 percent increase in physical health, and a 26 percent increase in emotional health. They also reported a 26.2 percent reduction in their perceived level of stress. As for the individual exercisers, they tended to work out twice as long as the other group, but saw no significant changes, except in mental quality of life, which saw an 11 percent increase.
“In terms of the study, I have no issues with it,” Andreas Bergdahl, an Associate Professor in Cardiovascular Physiology at Concordia University who wasn’t involved in the new study, told Gizmodo. “It is not particularly novel as these types of studies have been done over and over again. It has a fairly small sample size but I do like the fact that they looked at both men and women (often these are ‘mixed’ which hides potential gender differences). So all in all, a nice, small study which does not report anything new but rather confirms what has been seen in other publications.”
That “confirmation,” says Bergdahl, is that group workouts motivate us, give us confidence, holds us accountable, and makes the most of our time while working out. It also affords us the chance to have some fun and make some friends.
“As such group exercise is a good match for people who are outgoing or looking to meet new people, who benefit from structure, who find solo exercise boring or who have difficulty maintaining motivation by themselves,” he said. “In fact, peer support can be a great motivator, and can almost feel like group therapy.”
Bergdahl says there are physiological explanations behind this phenomenon. For example, group exercise unleashes a flood of chemicals in the brain, triggering the same responses seen in collective activities like dancing, laughter and religion.
“These chemicals, called endorphins are produced by virtually any vigorous physical activity, but group exercise classes appear to enhance the effect dramatically,” he said. “Related is the rise in pain threshold that has been measured in rowers exercising together vs alone. The lack of pain sensation, naturally means that the athlete can ‘push themselves’ to higher intensities, consequently enhancing the benefits of training. The release of endorphins actually means that for some (but not all) people, finding workout buddies could help turn fitness into a pleasant addiction (as you can get ‘hooked’ to the endorphins).”
Again, this study was limited to med students, and the point of the study was to see if group or individual exercise was better for the emotional well being of this particular group. But as Bergdahl points out, these findings may be applicable to anyone with extra stress and anxiety in their lives.
As a final note, the researchers are not saying that people who exercise alone are wasting their time.
“These findings should not be interpreted as a condemnation of individual exercise,” they write in the study. “We believe much benefit can be derived from physical exercise of any kind, but the addition of group fitness classes in a medical student population may have additional benefits. Engaging in social fitness activities could be a solution to improving the well-being of medical students and physicians.” [The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association]