We all know the importance of exercise, but at some point, everyone could use a bit more motivation, inspiration or just plain fun to jump start or maintain a workout routine. At those points, you might want to consider group exercise.
Working out with others can inspire you to not only show up, but show up on time, push yourself and even smile more. The benefits of exercising with other people are both intuitive and scientifically proven. Humans are social beings, so it’s no surprise that studies have shown that people are more likely to stick with an exercise program if it’s done with others.
One study found that participants in a weight-loss program were more likely to complete the program if they did it with friends. Ninety-five percent of those who started the program with friends completed it, compared to a completion rate of 76 percent for those who did it alone. The friend group also did a better job of maintaining the weight loss with 66 percent of participants keeping the weight off, while only 24 percent of those who did it alone kept their weight down.
Strength in Numbers
But why does exercising in a group motivate us? Studies and local instructors point to several factors. One is accountability: Knowing others are expecting you helps get you out the door.
This is something Kim Graham sees as the group fitness director at The EDGE fitness centers in Essex and South Burlington. Graham says the benefits of group exercise extend beyond the class as well. “For seniors specifically, it’s very social,” said Graham. “They form bonds, they hold each other accountable. A lot of them do breakfast afterward or something like that.”
The community built in class keeps people coming back, said Ryan Grey, the health and wellness director at the Greater Burlington Y. He also sees friendships germinate in class and grow outside of it.
“Relationships and friendships built in class are transferred into post-class going to breakfast, grabbing coffee or having each other over for dinner and going well beyond the exercise class,” Grey said.
Besides the motivation of showing up, studies have shown exercising with others can improve performance. In one study, participants were paired with a fitness partner who was perceived to be either more or less fit than the study subject. The subjects paired with a “high-fitness” partner exercised harder, and those with a “low-fitness” partner exerted themselves less. Basically, if you see the person next to you going for that extra rep, you might be motivated to give it a shot, too.
Even when higher levels of exertion is not the goal, the group dynamic has performance benefits. Both Grey and Graham say participants help each other from the start: new members are welcomed by veterans and classmates help each other get set up.
In addition to group support, class instructors are another obvious benefit over solo workouts. Instructors can provide feedback and modifications in addition to teaching.
“No matter who you are, everyone has restrictions at some point,” says Graham. Instructors can help participants work with restrictions such as limited mobility in knees or hips, arthritis, or any injuries.
Sometimes the instructor is part of the appeal. For example, at the Greater Burlington YMCA instructor and personal trainer Jervaughn Scales has developed a word-of-mouth following for the fun and supportive environment he’s created in his classes. “His ability to modify, the connections that he makes, the environment that he’s facilitated and fostered,” are what make him popular, said Grey. Or, as Creative Manager Vicky McCafferty said, “He’s amazing and everyone loves him!”
Senior-specific exercise classes at The EDGE and the Greater Burlington YMCA and other fitness centers are designed to consider aging joints and promote maintenance of daily function. This may mean exercises with lower impact and weight loads but maybe higher repetition.
“Seniors will say to me ‘You know what, we can do anything you want us to do, we just need to do it a little bit slower,’” Graham said.
Grey said The Y has seen more interest in group exercise classes for all ages. He credits the new Pomerleau Family Y facility as part of the attraction, and because the Y served as a place for social connection during much of the pandemic years when other social outlets were closed.
From Tai Chi to Zumba
Both The EDGE and The Y offer a wide variety of classes, from yoga mat to stationary bike to swimming pool. Classes are typically open to all ages and abilities.
“Age is not a measure of what class is most appropriate for somebody,” Grey said.
Among older adults, aqua classes are very popular, said Graham. The appeal is a good workout with little to no stress on joints, with the water providing resistance for muscles.
Tai chi is gaining popularity and pulling in younger participants as well, said Graham.
“I think that there’s a huge push in the fitness industry in general for more of that restorative type of exercise. Tai chi has been shown to reduce blood pressure and keep you moving. … I think for the mind and the body it’s very good.”
Tai Chi is also a good option for people who don’t want to do the floor poses of a yoga class but are looking for an exercise that emphasizes the mind-body connection, according to Graham.
At the Greater Burlington Y those Tai Chi movements are moved to the water for an aqua workout called Ai Chi. It’s a newer and popular class, said Grey.
Water workouts are great for people living with arthritis. Both The Y and The EDGE offer classes designed specifically for those with arthritis that help improve range of motion and strength to reduce fatigue, stiffness, and pain.
Other pool classes include aqua aerobics, aqua Zumba, low-impact cardio, and strength training.
Both Graham and Grey want participants to see group classes as safe, welcoming, no-intimidation zones in which to get a great workout and build a community.
“There’s no reason not to give it a try. The hardest step is getting in the door … once they try it, they won’t turn back,” Grey said.
The Greater Burlington Y, College Street, Burlington, Gbymca.org
The EDGE Sports and Fitness, locations in Essex and South Burlington, EdgeVT.com
Clover Whitham has been a journalist at Vermont newspapers for more than a dozen years and is now a freelance writer and editor near Burlington.