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Health and wellness

How exercising in a group boosts your quality of life and results from your workouts

Working out with friends and peers gives a boost to your pain tolerance and feel-good hormones, leading to improvements in mental, physical and emotional well-being. Just make sure it’s something you’re good at doing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 January, 2018, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 7:33pm

True or false: can exercising with a group boost your health, well-being and performance?

The short answer: yes

There’s no downside to exercising alone, but if you want to substantially improve your physical performance, increase your pain tolerance, and boost the production of feel-good hormones in your body, you may want to sign up for that group Zumba class at the gym or round up a few friends and go on a hike together.

A new study, published last October in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Asso ciation, found that, compared to solo exercise, exercising with a group improves quality of life and reduces stress.

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Although the study was small – it involved 69 highly stressed medical students – it revealed significant improvements in all three quality-of-life measures: mental (12.6 per cent), physical (24.8 per cent) and emotional (26 per cent). Subjects who exercised in a group also reported a 26.2 per cent reduction in perceived stress levels.

Observing how my group mates move helps me refine my own technique and motivates me to do my best
Vivia Fung

Previous research yielded similar results – one study, published in The BMJ in 2007, showed some benefits of supervised group exercise for women being treated for early-stage breast cancer. In this study from Scotland, 12 weeks of supervised group exercise provided both functional and psychological benefits, both short- and long-term, for women undergoing treatment for the disease.

In what ways does group exercise improve our quality of life? For starters, it involves social facilitation – the presence of others works generally to boost our performance.

“If we are engaging in an activity that we are already good at, then being in a group will enhance our performance,” says Dr Michael Eason, a psychologist and US-licenced psychotherapist who practises at MindnLife in Hong Kong’s Central district. “The flip side, however, is that if we engage in an activity that is new to us, or that we do not know very well, the presence of a group tends to impair performance. The more we practise something and become skilled at it, the more comfortable we will be with doing that activity in a group; this will lead to enhancing our performance in the long run.”

Henry Yip can attest to that. The business development manager does callisthenics, weightlifting, and boxing with a group at Warrior Academy in Shek Tong Tsui, three times a week, and says that he looks forward to these team sessions because they push him to train harder.

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“Working out in a group inspires me to reach beyond my perceived limits,” the 32-year-old Yip says. “There’s that competitive aspect, because when I see my group mates push themselves, it makes me want to do even better so that I can beat them. Over time, it definitely helps with my overall performance.”

Thirty-one-year-old Vivia Fung, who works in public relations, feels the same way about her barre classes, which she does at at Barre2Barre in Central. Barre is a ballet-inspired workout that combines elements of Pilates, yoga, dance, and functional training.

“During a group barre class, I find myself putting in more effort than I would during, say, a private yoga class,” she says. “Observing how my group mates move helps me refine my own technique and motivates me to do my best.”

If the group exercise involves teamwork, Eason says it has the additional advantage of enhancing social connectedness and reducing biases and hostilities. This is because team exercises often involve working toward a superordinate goal.

“Superordinate goals are those that require cooperation among people; cooperation, in turn, reduces hostility,” he explains. “In working together towards a common goal, people are more likely to focus on their similarities instead of their differences, as they merge to form one larger group. In the end, shared superordinate goals create a sense of harmony between people and reduce feelings of prejudice or bias. This can improve people’s individual relationships with those around them and have a positive ripple effect on society as a whole.”

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Yip agrees with this, saying he enjoys bonding with the people he trains with and appreciates his teammates’ support and encouragement when it comes to performing certain challenging exercises. He adds that these are just two of the many factors that also motivate him to be consistent with his workout schedule.

Fung, too, says that doing barre with others is what makes going to class fun: “It’s a chance for me to connect and interact with my group mates. Plus, I love that everyone is so supportive because it makes certain moves less daunting. Doing planks, for instance, is challenging, but when we do it together as a group, somehow it feels more enjoyable.”

It’s not surprising then, that group training is set to be one of the biggest fitness trends this year. According to the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), the largest sports medicine and exercise science organisation in the world, group training is defined as a workout of five or more people, led by an instructor. These classes are designed to motivate participants and help them achieve their individual fitness goals.

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So what activities count as group exercise? Eason says that as long as social interaction is involved, you’re on the right track.

“I think there can be a distinction between ‘team group exercises’, such as basketball or football, and ‘structured group exercises’, such as a yoga class or an organised hike. Both types of group exercises have their own benefits; the key is to choose the activities that work best for you.”