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Health and wellness

Why exercising in a group is better than working out alone: motivation, fun, community

Boot camps offer the chance to get fit with like-minded people, social and emotional support, incentives to persevere and positive reinforcement

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 10:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 4:55pm

When Alice Harbison was seven months pregnant, she attended a fitness boot camp in Happy Valley. Having just moved to Hong Kong from the UK, the 36-year-old was keen to maintain her fitness and muscle tone so she wouldn’t have any problems regaining her pre-pregnancy body after giving birth.

“My goal was to lose 10kg post-delivery,” says Harbison. “My new friends in Hong Kong suggested I try these boot-camp sessions in my neighbourhood, and from that first class I was hooked. The workouts are held three mornings a week and I get to exercise with fun and energetic people. Thanks in part to these sessions, I’ve already lost 15kg and managed to keep the weight off so far.”

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“Happy Valley boot camp” was started by fitness coach Kin Ho two years ago to motivate people to exercise together. The group, which started with just eight people, currently has a membership of more than 80.

“The sessions entail working through various ‘stations’, where exercises are performed that work specific parts of the body,” says Ho. “We have male and female members of all ages, backgrounds and fitness levels. Everyone has a great time working out together and the vibe is always positive and supportive.”

When we think about losing weight, the first things that come to mind are diet and exercise. But, while these are important, we are not addressing the cause of the problem if we lack social support for our endeavour, says Damien Mouellic, an osteopath at Stanley Wellness Centre in Hong Kong.

“Getting social support is essential, because social influences have a huge impact on our body image,” Mouellic explains. “As children, many of us received negative messages about our weight or eating habits; these, coupled with the need for social acceptance and a poor body image may have driven some of us towards unfavourable lifestyle habits and eating patterns that are preventing us from achieving our health goals. If we want to change this, it helps to be around people who remind us of why we’re trying to lose weight and get fit in the first place, and to find environments and activities that motivate us to achieve our goals.”

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Ho agrees that, whether you’re trying to get in shape or maintain your weight, social support is crucial. “At boot camp we’re all working out together, albeit at different intensities and speeds, and we’re all in the same boat in that we want to get or stay fit. It’s also motivating to see or hear about others in the group who have achieved their weight loss or fitness goals. People start to think, ‘If he or she can do it then there’s no reason why I can’t’.”

There’s also the issue of accountability, says Chrissy Denton, a personal trainer and nutritionist at Chrissy Denton Health & Fitness in Hong Kong. When you’re accountable to your support network, you’re more likely to stay focused on your goal and, as you progress, your confidence also increases. This is why people who enrol in weight-loss programmes with family or friends, or who join groups like Weight Watchers, tend to do better at sticking to their weight-loss goals.

Science appears to support this. A study at the University of Illinois in the US found that being accountable to others was critical in motivating people to lose excess weight and keep it off. The study, which was published in 2014 in the journal Public Health Nutrition and Epidemiology, revealed that the participants, all women, didn’t find that personal accountability was important, but having support from others was.

In fact, the participants said that without others’ support, it was difficult to stay motivated and focused on their goals. Those whose friends or family members made unhelpful or negative comments, intentionally or unintentionally sabotaged their weight-loss efforts, or tempted them with high-calorie foods, also found it hard to stay on track with their weight-loss goals.

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If group exercise is not up your alley, you can find support online. Being part of a weight-loss support group on Facebook, for instance, also gives you a sense of accountability and allows you to discuss challenges, post progress photos, and share fitness tips and meal ideas.

A study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that being part of such online virtual support communities could boost your weight-loss efforts. Public accountability aside, the research revealed that these communities offer an environment that allows members relative anonymity, accessibility, availability and flexibility in how they represent themselves.

The process of building community and the co-creation of related outcomes also keep participants motivated and accountable, according to the researchers. The study was published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing in November 2017.

If you’re struggling to get trim and fit on your own, it might help to get support. This may be emotional support or feedback from a significant other, friend or parent; informational support from a weight-loss, nutrition or fitness expert; or network or group support, such as from an exercise group or online community. If you’ve had negative experiences with group exercise in the past, Ho urges you not to feel discouraged, saying that you just need to find a group or exercise environment that suits you.

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Harbison, for one, agrees that taking part in boot-camp sessions with like-minded people spurs her to stick to the routine. “I often attend the classes with a friend, which is an incentive in itself because we walk to the classes together. I also love working out with everyone in the group; although we all have different reasons for being there it’s always enjoyable, and it’s encouraging seeing everybody’s fitness improve week after week.

“My weight loss has been slow and steady but I already feel super-confident in my clothes and can run faster because I’m fitter. Knowing that I’m stronger is also tremendous motivation to keep pushing myself to stay in shape.”