Weight Loss & Diet

Group Exercise: Can It Be Your Secret to Success in Staying Active?

Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

Are you looking for a way to start an exercise program, and continue it for the long-term? Do you want to have fun, challenge yourself, and notice results? Group exercise may be the answer. Plus, pandemic and all, you can switch to online training to get many of the benefits of group exercise. What better way to control weight and lower health risks such as risk for type 2 diabetes?

Group Exercise in a Socially Distanced World

First things first. What is group exercise, and is it even possible during a pandemic? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines group exercise as including at least 5 individuals. It can include activities such as aerobics, step aerobics, zumba, pilates, sculpting, cycling, yoga, kickboxing, and more. Often, they are taught or led by an instructor who has been certified by the ACSM or American Council on Exercise (ACE) and who has training in areas such as safe exercises and activities to meet fitness or health goals.

Group training has been hot recently, making the top 3 trends identified by members of the American College of Sports Medicine in 2018, 2019, and 2020. It made only 17th on the list for 2021 as COVID-19 concerns led to banning large gatherings and forcing gyms to close. 

“Online training” is now top-ranked, and it can provide many of the benefits of group fitness. Yes, you can benefit from “group training” during a pandemic!

Advantages of Group Training

Group training has some differences that may keep you coming back more consistently than you might if you were training alone.

  • More interesting. Boredom can quickly turn an exercise intention into exercise avoidance, but it is challenging for most people to think of enough safe and fitness level-appropriate exercises to keep them engaged week after week. Group fitness instructors often can!
  • More challenging. Continually challenging yourself can keep you coming back for more. Plus, it can lead to better results in terms of weight control and fitness. Even if you are not a competitive person, seeing what everyone else is doing in a group exercise class can motivate you to strive for more.
  • Mentally easier. Though they may be physically more challenging, group exercise classes can be mentally easier because you do not need to think about what to do. Just follow the instructor’s lead or directions. Without even thinking about it, you can flow from exercise to exercise to get a total body workout in a sculpting class, or add high-intensity intervals in a cycling class when the instructor tells you to increase or decrease the resistance and pedaling speed.
  • Requires a commitment. When exercising alone, there may be a lot of flexibility. That may mean you choose to exercise “sometime later,” and “later” may never come. With a group exercise class, you need to schedule the class into your day, which may make you more likely to show up. Even if the class is recorded and not live, it can keep you around the whole time so you can get through the cool-down at the end, rather than if you were by yourself and able to stop when you first got the urge.
  • Social potential. Group exercise classes include several people who have at least one thing in common with you: interest in that class. You may be able to build on that and create some lasting friendships.

Proven Benefits

Research has been positive regarding group exercise. It goes beyond the usual benefits of exercise, which are already impressive. Increased physical activity can help lower blood sugar and prevent or manage diabetes, reduce risk for hypertension or lower blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels. It can aid in weight control, improve mood, and boost mental health.

Group exercise may have additional benefits. For example, according to research in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, individuals who participated in group fitness classes reported improved physical, emotional, and mental quality of life compared to those who were sedentary. A third group, who exercised solo or with a partner, only had improved mental quality of life.

There is also reason to believe that group exercise can make it easier to stick to an exercise program. Research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that seeing other people engage in healthy behaviors normalizes them and makes you more likely to do so yourself.

What to Look for

The class needs to meet some basic needs. It must:

  • Be at your level (or have exercises that you can modify to be safe and helpful for you).
  • Help you meet your goals, such as improving strength, increasing flexibility, or feeling more agile.
  • Be at a convenient time for you (and in a convenient place if it is not online).

Another factor to consider is how much fun you will have. The more positively you feel about the experience, the more likely you are to keep up with it, according to research published in APA PsycArticles. It can take a few tries until you find a class with the perfect combination of instructor, participants, and activities for you.

The instructor’s enthusiasm and personality, the way she engages with the others in the class, the exercises or dance moves she shows, and the other participants in the class can all affect how much you enjoy the class. 

The feeling of cohesion, or having a shared purpose, is an important factor in your likelihood of sticking with it, according to research in Health Education and Behavior. For many, it can help to be with people who are of a similar age or fitness level as you, according to an article in Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Finding and Starting a Group Exercise Class

As you would before starting any new activity program, it is important to get your doctor’s approval if you have any risk factors such as being overweight, having prediabetes or diabetes, having hypertension, or having any other health conditions. Safety is first, but Mayo Clinic Proceedings says rates of injury among those who participate in group exercise classes and those who work out alone have similar injury rates. Knees and backs are most commonly injured, and burpees and squats are the most common culprits.

As long as COVID-19 is raging, the safest place to exercise is in your own home or another place where you are not around people from other households. You often can participate in the class with minimal equipment, such as shoes, a yoga mat, or household items for weights.

Luckily, there are plenty of online options to give you the group experience without any threat of spreading COVID-19. Some are live classes, while others are pre-recorded and accessible on demand. When you mix and match different lengths and types of classes, it can be easy to hit the 150-minutes-per-week goal to lower risk for diabetes and other health conditions.

Whether you want to lose a few pounds, gain energy, lower blood sugar, or feel more relaxed, increasing physical activity can help. Participating in group exercise classes can help you see results and stick to the program for longer, so it is worth looking around the internet. There are many free and inexpensive options, and many healthcare plans and employers offer discounts or free access to services.