The benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are well known to most adults interested in staying or getting healthy. People who exercise regularly sleep better, have improved endurance and stamina, are stronger, less depressed, and live longer (just to name a few obvious benefits). All of these benefits occur whether the exercise or activity is accomplished running alone on a wooded trail or while surrounded by friends in a kickboxing class. But is one way better than the other? Sometimes there are no other options than to exercise alone, but if there was a choice, which would be healthier?
Many exercise and social scientists who study behavior and health would say that working out with a partner or group of “partners” is the smarter choice. As a friend of mine who is an NC State fan would say, “There is strength in the Pack.” Research backs this up! Recent studies examining this claim have found several health benefits to working out with others. There is evidence that exercise participants tend to copy the behaviors of those around them, including physical activities or diets that lead to weight loss. Those who are trying to lose weight and spend more time with fit friends will actually lose more weight, maintain the weight loss, and adopt the healthy behaviors of their healthier buddies. One study found that 95% of adults who started a weight loss program with friends completed the program compared to 75% who tried alone.
Additional research indicates that those who exercise with more capable partners can significantly improve their physical performance. Results of one study showed a 24% increase in plank time when comparing those who practiced planks alone and those who practiced with a partner. One study out of Kansas State University found an increase in exercise time of 200% when working out with more capable partners than when exercising alone. Time spent exercising is also increased by 50% when working out with any partner, not just super fit ones, versus solo exercise. A group setting is especially beneficial for pushing participants to give more effort, produce more endorphins, provide more encouragement, and have more fun!
Commitment to a fitness routine also increases when working out with others. A crowd of workout partners can enhance consistency, duration, motivation, and inspiration. It is harder to skip a class knowing that someone will be calling to ask why, bringing a higher level of accountability than if someone just rolled over in bed and slept in, with only the family dog to wonder why they stayed in bed. Committing to a common exercise goal, like a triathlon or 5K race, may also positively impact compliance to an exercise routine, especially if the exercise partner competes at a higher level than their more novice partner. Success in a sporting competition like a triathlon, which can be defined differently by almost every participant, can lead to improved self-confidence and self-efficacy, and potentially continued future competitive events. Even if the goal is to, “Finish the event in the same day still standing up,” the training and preparation for competition are physically and mentally healthy.
One unfortunate unhealthy consequence of group exercise can be an overuse injury or acute muscle or joint stress when trying to keep up with group members who may be stronger and/or more experienced at a particular exercise or activity. The peer pressure may push a participant to try to jump too high, run too fast, or lift too much weight if they are not aware of safe limits for pushing themselves physically. If an exercise causes acute pain, then it should be stopped. Risky behaviors of trying to match a teammate are not necessarily healthy behaviors.
While exercising with a partner or in a group will be more beneficial than exercising alone, picking any kind of exercise is almost always better than sitting on the couch! Good luck finding an exercise partner just in time for summer!
Resources: Nbcnews.com: The Health Benefits of Working Out with a Crowd