Social Movement: Breaking a Sweat Together
Does the group dynamic encourage making working out a habit?
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The relationship between social support and exercise is rather intuitive. Given option one, “zumba class with ripped instructor and a gaggle of friends” versus option two, “solitary run at 5 a.m. before work” and most people’s preference leans toward numero uno. There’s a stronger motivation to work out when you’re with a group.
But not for me.
I’ve always hated working out in a group. This stems from a failed attempt to join the track team in high school, an attempt that ended with a pulled tendon and bruised dignity.
In college, I attempted athletics again, waking up at the crack of dawn for early morning runs where the only people watching were kindergarteners taking the bus to school.
I came to think of myself as the Lone Ranger, the solitary athlete. There was no one to compare myself to, no one to hold me accountable but me, no one to judge when I stopped running and started walking.
You could say I was an anomaly, with science pointing towards group workouts as a factor in getting the most out of exercise. In a group, you have a built-in support system, a team of buddies who build you up when the lactaid comes crashing down. You become more competitive, get better results, even have an emotional and spiritual high, so the survey says, when you have a buddy training alongside you.
In a study of middle-aged and older women conducted in 1999, “Women who reported that their family and friends gave them a great deal of encouragement to exercise (a form of emotional support) were twice as likely to have completed 300 minutes of total weekly activity than women who reported little or no encouragement.”
Well, there was my problem. I might have been training with a group in high school, but the only social support I was getting was a coach limply saying, “alright, nice try” before turning his attention to the faster, winning athletes.
To see if social support in exercise exists and if it is indeed beneficial, I signed up for three different all-female group activities.
I laced up my sneakers and didn’t look back.
It’s a chilly Wednesday morning, the sun peeks through soft clouds and robins hop on the benches at Lippitt Park in Providence. The grass is damp with dew and early risers trundle groggily with their dogs, who happily sniff the fresh morning air.
A group of women decked out in colorful spandex and bright sneakers gather around one woman who is busy organizing things in the back of her car.
Roisin ‘Ro’ McGettigan-Dumas has a thick mane of blond hair pulled into a ponytail and a lithe, toned physique. Her eyes dart from person to person with a nervous energy.
McGettigan-Dumas runs a weekly women’s running group, Run with Ro, where she imparts her Olympic running wisdom and workouts in a motivational and ‘judgment-free’ setting.
With my past experiences, running in a group had been anything but motivational.
“Please don’t worry about being out of shape! We start off very easy and everyone works at their own pace. It will be fun, I promise!” McGettigan-Dumas had told me in an email.
But as I approach the group of women, chatting away with their hip running gear, my two-year-old pink Asics seem out of place.
McGettigan-Dumas tells us we are going to start with a five minute run. Great, I think, I can barely run two minutes without pausing.
But as we ease into the run, I find myself not at the end of the pack of ten, but in the very middle. The women lightly chat, with McGettigan-Dumas bouncing between the group like a sheep dog making sure the herd doesn’t go astray.
After five minutes, which surprisingly felt like three, we do a sprint drill.
“Alright, so we’ll pick our point and then sprint a little bit just to fire up the engines. Roar!” she says.
“You’re scaring us!” one woman says, voicing what we’re all thinking.
We all laugh briefly, then it’s back to business.
We run our little hearts out as fast and as hard as we can. After three sets of these, hearts racing, we pause.
Now it’s sets of one minute running, one minute walking for four sets.
‘Ah, intervals, I’m a pro at this!’ I think.
But as we begin our first set, the group’s easy going pace feels more like a sprint.
I attempt to keep up, but a twinge in my inner thigh makes it difficult. I slowly stall to the back of the pack, ready to feel the shame of high school all over again.
But a strange thing happens. No shame. Two other women huff alongside me, quiet, concentrating, quite unlike the bubbly runners of my high school experience who could seamlessly have a conversation while running.
Though my thigh is tingling and I can barely take a step without gasping, I feel calm. This group of women doesn’t run to complete a team goal of sweeping states or regionals; each person runs for themselves with the group support buoying them upwards and onwards. Towards their goals.
At the end of our run, the group gathers to stretch and, of course, talk. ‘I feel damn good!’ I think to myself as we touch our toes and do planks.
“So for those of you who are new,” McGettigan-Dumas says, “we like to tell each other something we want to accomplish, which we will check in on each week.”
We go through the group of women, some people mentioning running goals, some explaining goals in other parts of their lives.
My goal: run five minutes straight on my own, no social/emotional support, to test if my runner’s high after Run with Ro was a product of social support or simply a placebo.
Since Running with Ro that first Wednesday, the weather has gotten nicer and the excuses for not running have diminished into pitiful attempts like “I’ll get sunburn” or “it’s still a little chilly… better not risk it.”
But to test if social support lent a hand in my successful run, I put down my book, take my feet off my lawn chair and decide that I should probably haul ass.
‘I ran five minutes straight with the group,’ I think to myself as I tie up my sneakers. ‘I can do it today too!’
I begin down my street at a fast paced walk to warm-up, then I tap open my timer, select five minutes and begin.
I round the corner, watch a chicken cross the road (literally, I live in rural West Greenwich) and ignore the two dogs I’ve nicknamed Beavis and Butthead who always bark at me.
I accelerate, my way of saying ‘up yours’ to the yapping dogs, and cruise onward.
Okay, it’s got to be five minutes by now. I unlock my phone to check the timer. Only three minutes and thirty seconds have passed. What? I stop, wipe my brow, and realize I feel like death. What gives?
I tepidly do some stretching exercises down a side street, before attempting to run some more. Nope, not working.
I walk home, telling myself it is an extended cool down.
Back home, I crack open the training journal Ro gives her runners, a means to track and achieve running goals.
I jot down my thoughts.
“Five minutes straight attempt, got to 3:30 before couldn’t go more. Run with Ro did five minutes no problem. This time super hard. Was it all the turkey, cheddar cheese and jelly beans I ate?”
I put the pen down, mulling over one, my food choices and two, how running with a group really seemed to make a difference. Maybe it’s my competitive side coming out or maybe the simple adage that peer pressure makes you do things. But one thing’s for sure, I had a heck of a lot more power, energy and adrenaline running with the ladies than going solo.
I close my journal and sit for a minute, reflecting on my conclusion. Then I crack open a beer and nurse my wounds.
After Running with Ro and my failed attempt to achieve the same results going solo, I felt it necessary to learn more about the buoying effect of group exercise.
I met Katie Becofsky, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, to get the deets.
Turns out exercising in a group is actually a pretty simple cocktail of chemical happiness with multiple people undergoing the same reaction. The more brains on oxytocin, the merrier.
“It’s that runner’s high, endorphins and feel-good chemicals,” Becofsky says, before throwing in the extra-sciency conjecture that “exercise can actually grow new brain cells, new neurons.”
Becofsky says the biggest health gains come from people who go from doing no exercise to doing something. And sometimes seeing other people like you doing an activity gives you the confidence to do it yourself.
“The best way to build self-efficacy is to see someone else doing it, then you think well, I can do it. The more you see similar people doing something, the more likely you are to do it yourself,” she says.
It makes sense; who you sweat with matters.
It’s fitting that my next activity, Gloria Gemma young survivor yoga, is all about camaraderie and the support found sweating alongside other women.