Tying up the sneakers is the easy part—committing to getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week takes discipline, planning, and pals. We are social creatures who do best with healthy competition and peer pressure. A body of evidence shows that having strong social support can help sustain fitness goals. There is value in achieving fitness with friends.
It is no surprise that joining a group that exercises regularly helps one commit to working out, but who is most likely to be helped by group exercise programs? For one, older adults benefit from getting social support around exercise. Barbara Resnick and colleagues found that friend support influenced seniors to exercise by strengthening seniors’ self-efficacy and influencing their outcome expectations. Research consistently shows that older adults are motivated by others to exercise, and social support can make the difference between whether seniors choose to work out versus to forgo activity.
Exercise is contagious. In an article on social influence on exercise, authors Sinan Aral and Christos Nicolaides describe the contagiousness of activity. Surprisingly, not everyone is equally affected by such contagion. For instance, the authors’ research demonstrated that weaker runners pressured more fit runners, but the reverse was not true. Additionally, they showed that men and women’s words and actions impact men’s exercise habits, but only women can affect other women.
Using virtual social support to promote exercise goals is a new trend. For instance, use of Strava, a social media application for fitness tracking, is high among young adults and endurance exercisers. Similarly, Fitbitencourages social competition around exercise. Many runners/bikers/hikers grew up using fitness applications, and as such feel comfortable sharing their statistics online. Peloton, the indoor cycling program that brings bikers together in the comfort of their own home via monitors, claims it promotes community. Both Strava and Peloton promote healthy peer pressure around exercise. When you have someone monitoring your statistics, or a coach on TV actively pushing you, you will do more; you will be more likely to work out harder and longer.
For exercisers who like to link working out with doing good, health ministry teams might be the right fit. For example, some churches couple walking programs with the goal of accumulating the miles needed to reach a particular location important to their faith. The Walk to Jerusalem programmonitors mileage to encourage church members to “walk” from a site in their neighborhood to the Holy Land. Church organizers can track church members’ activities and push for walking goals to be made by a certain time—by Easter, for instance. This gentle social support can help a wide variety of church members to participate.
Another way to do good while working out involves signing up to do marathon training with a charity. Runners can find coveted spots in large city marathons by signing up to fundraise. Charities bring runners together for training runs, helping encourage social support among the trainees. For instance, you can sign up to run to help Team Heifer as you train for the Marine Corps Marathon, joining like-minded running pals who fundraise to help end hunger and poverty.
Some who enjoy combining exercise with socializing might benefit from the meet-up programs that have proliferated with the internet. For instance, many medium-to-large cities and jurisdictions organize group exercise through virtual means by using the meetup.com URL to gather groups for yoga or other recreational activities. Others might enjoy the camaraderie of biking and beer, signing up to participate in regional bike and brew programs such as at Mile High Bike Tours in Denver or Bikeable Brews in Northern Virginia.
Gathering groups for exercise takes effort, but once you get started, there are natural nudges that come from social connections that help you to achieve your goals. Many people competed in sports in high school and enjoyed built-in social support from coaches and peers to keep on track with monthly work-out goals. Future research may help indicate how contagious exercise really is. In the meanwhile, social support remains extremely valuable for those who want to stay focused on exercise programs and enjoy the long-term benefits of physical fitness.