Social Movement: Breaking a Sweat Together
Does the group dynamic encourage making working out a habit?
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.
I admit, driving up to the Studio Exhale in Cranston I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I had been to a yoga class was two years ago in London. The class was run by a pot-bellied South African named Sanjay who was like a sassy Richard Simmons and the poses were intense contortions that left me sore the next day.
Walking into the room, I meet Mandy Zito, patient and survivor resource navigator for Gloria Gemma. Zito formed a walking group in 2012 that turns to indoor yoga as a way to stay fit during the winter months.
What started as a way to stay healthy post-treatment grew roots and deep connections bloomed.
“It’s really important to the ladies to have that connection, and everybody says it’s great to have your friends and family, great to have work, but you do want to set time just for yourself, with the other survivor people,” Zito says.
Survivor yoga provided the perfect medium to not only gently exercise, but to do it with women who, as many of the participants said, “Get it.”
“Sometimes after surgery, specifically related to breast cancer, you lose range of motion with your arms,” says Zito. “So if you’re at home doing yoga and you’re mad at yourself because you can’t do that pose anymore but then you come here and you go, ‘Oh she can’t do that?’ It’s nice to know that you’re not alone.”
This is not the friendly-competition vibe of Run with Ro, but something more akin to the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The women come in, unroll their mats, and begin to chat. They talk about their days, the stress of work, kids. Cancer is rarely mentioned. Their banter drowns out the tranquil music.
Eventually everyone settles down onto their mats. An array of items lie next to me, two large sacks (bolsters), two foam blocks, a rough and hefty grey blanket. We then begin a series of super mild yoga that focus mainly on breathing and stretching for women who have various cancers, but primarily breast cancer. The stretches focus on the torso, arms, neck, hips and the muscles that stretch to hold the frame together.
Lazily twisting our bodies, breathing deeply, the hour and fifteen minute session slides onward.
After the class, I speak with some participants. Turns out this gathering goes far beyond ‘doing yoga.’ There is none of the self-consciousness present in modern yoga where women see who can sweat the most while still looking good in their Lululemon.
Jess Driscoll has curly black hair and is the new woman in the group, still breaking into the sisterhood but excited about the prospect of not only working out her body, but also her soul.
“I think the yoga is just a peaceful time and you get to feel relaxed, but more importantly are the bonds that are formed and friendships that are made and I’m really hopeful that happens for me,” she says. We stand in the foyer of the yoga studio, a group gathered around one woman who is planning her wedding. The girls laugh and ask her about her dress fitting.
“I think it’s hard being a new person coming in because it’s clear the women here have been together for such a long time,” she says. “But I think a fun part is that you’re not just talking about cancer, everyone knows about each other and you’re talking about regular, ordinary things,” she says, rubbing her arms. “You feel like you have your life back.”
Survivor yoga and Run with Ro both employ sport and female friendship as ways to overcome obstacles, be they mental hurdles like those I faced in high school, or life-and-death experiences, like surviving cancer. Camaraderie, companionship and support are at the core of each of these groups, and are what makes them successful.
The next step in my examination of group support was with rock-climbing, a sport that is often perceived as male-dominated, but that has a growing bastion of female climbers dedicated to changing that perception. This immersion would be led by woman dedicated to making other women feel badass.
Kristin Re is cool. She could easily define the word with her sleeve tats, perfectly undone hair, liberal use of the word “rad” and easy-going personality. I meet her at Rock Spot Climbing in Lincoln, where I assume we will be hooking up to ropes and climbing walls like the ones at the birthday parties I went to as a tike. Easy peasy.
Instead, I walk into a place clouded with chalk dust and packed with tatted people with ripped bodies and the occasional mohawk. Not to mention steeply curved walls covered with people scurrying like spiders, no ropes attached. Let that sink in. No ropes.
Re starts to talk about how women are often intimidated by bouldering, or climbing without ropes, since it’s usually a more male dominated part of the rock-climbing spectrum.
“It’s more upper body strength, so even the entry grade is harder for women. It can be more intimidating so more women do the ropes. That’s why I like doing these
clinics, to show them they can do it.”
As Re cheerily speaks about empowering women through bouldering, a feeling of dread starts to wash over me. Sure, the theoretical “they” can do it, but “we” are
using ropes, right?
Four other women filter in and join our Ladies Night crew.
We head over to the squishy mats to stretch. On the way we pass the harness equipment and I realize my fate is sealed. We are bouldering.
Re starts the class by stretching, while everyone gets out small pouches filled with chalk, a way for calloused hands to grip the wall holds more easily.
“So I thought we could all introduce ourselves and say what we hope to get out of this class,” Re says.
‘I hope to get out of this class without dying,’ I think. On a more positive note, I think I would like to get out of this class with just an ounce of the coolness that Re radiates.
Re then explains a little bit about terminology, probably more for me than the other women who have at least rock-climbed before, even if they aren’t pros.
She opens her bag of chalk and talks “beta”– that is, technique.
“So when we say ‘beta,’ we mean how you do something. Everyone’s beta is different,” she says, before she approaches the walls surrounding us and points to the grippy thingies, holds.
“Does everyone know the different hold names?”
She goes through each hold type, reaching up to point the distinctive shapes and their functions.
Re then plops down onto the soft, squishy gray mat and holds out a rock-climbing shoe.
“A common beginner mistake is to use the balls of the feet, but you really want to use tip of toe and ridges on side,” she says, tracing the sole of the shoe with chalk-tipped fingers. “Use as much toe as possible so you can pivot any way you need.”
“Alright, to warm-up we are gonna traverse and practice falling.”
Falling, like falling on my face? I thought that was a given.
Meanwhile, the other women look on uncomfortably, which makes me feel slightly better about my own insecurities.
Each woman goes up, then traverses (which is basically “to the left, to the left” up against a wall), before climbing upwards, they then grab onto a hold that looks like two hands interlocked, before falling.
Re and the other women are super encouraging, shouting out “Nice!” and “You got this!” and other words that make reaching for that next hold a smidge easier.
My turn comes up and I start off surprisingly well, until I get to the top and the two-hand hold. I just can’t bring myself to get my right hand up there.
Re encourages me, giving me instructions.
“You can do it, just reach with your left hand and push with your legs!”
I try, but my hand slips at the last second and I fall.
I attempt to flop into a puddle like she told us, but instead land a little hard. My head hurts for a millisecond, before I get up and realize that it wasn’t so bad. My second climb fares even better, and with the chorus of support from our gaggle of girls, I feel like a world champ. I subtly check out my pecs, convinced they are leaner and more defined than when I began, and chat with the others between climbs.
Many are mothers and climbing is something that makes them feel good about themselves, an empowering workout if there ever was one.
As we chat, some of the women boulder harder climbs, their back muscles clenching and arm muscles vibrating and legs reaching.It’s hard, and even the most experienced in our small group, Re, knows it.
“Bouldering is a series of unfortunate events, but then you get it and you’re like holy crap, I just did it!” Re says. “It’s empowering because you can apply your success to other things in life and you will be surprised at what you can do. It won’t be easy…” One of the ladies interrupts, “But nothing worth doing is.”
“It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is.”
The words linger with me after I dust the chalk off my hands and drive home.
This could be the tagline for all of the groups, from Running with Ro to survivor yoga to bouldering babes.
Because let’s be real: starting to exercise isn’t easy, but it becomes so much easier when you begin your journey with a group of women who are looking for more than just a workout; they’re looking for friendship.
This series of encounters, brief connections with these groups of women, showed me that with a “great deal of encouragement” and with the right attitude, group exercise provides a potent mix of motivation and inspiration.
Grace Kelly is an assistant editor in the special publications department at Rhode Island Monthly. When she’s not putting her body through grueling workouts for the sake of journalism, she can be found immersed in a book, eating or rowing.