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Why group exercise is so effective: The psychology behind working out with others

Group fitness enthusiasts often credit social support as why they return to classes, but competition may be a bigger factor.

Howard Monroe, turquoise shirt and black shorts front center doing sit up, and Matt Baumann, orange shirt front right doing a push up, participate in the November Project, a free workout, on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, in Philadelphia, October 30,2019.
Howard Monroe, turquoise shirt and black shorts front center doing sit up, and Matt Baumann, orange shirt front right doing a push up, participate in the November Project, a free workout, on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, in Philadelphia, October 30,2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

For 3½ years, Zach Chizar jogged to the Rocky steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art every Wednesday at 6:25 a.m.

There, Chizar joined dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other Philadelphians for an hour of sprints up and down the steps, burpees, push-ups, and other exercises while the sun rose over the skyline. It was all part of the November Project, a free workout in cities across the country that started in Boston eight years ago to emphasize strength and cardio and, most important, community.

“It was very motivating because I’d want to get out of bed and see these people, even when it was 10 degrees outside,” said Chizar, 34.

Last June, Chizar, who works at Villanova University, moved to Glen Mills. He joined a nearby gym and began working out alone, but quickly found that it was much harder to stay motivated.

“With a group, even if you might not think you’re in great shape, you can push through pretty much anything in your head,” Chizar said. “Even if you’re really tired, everyone else is doing it, so why should you give up?”

The psychology behind why it’s so much harder to do 20 burpees when you’re alone versus in a group is fundamental to how humans relate. Group exercise leads to bonds that actually enhance exercise ability, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Oxford. It also fosters competition, which can be an even stronger motivator, according to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s why boot camps and fitness studios emphasize working as a group — SoulCycle, for example, found success by turning a solitary activity into group sessions so trendy and motivational that participants pay upward of $32 for an hour on a stationary bike.

“A lot of people go to work out not only to stay healthy, but also to socialize and collaborate,” said Eric Zillmer, director of athletics and a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. “They believe they’re part of a group, and that sense of belonging and happiness people feel when they do things together is a very strong motivator.”

Zillmer said this also is apparent in workplaces, where bosses look for employees who work well in teams. Professional, scholastic, and even neighborhood athletes are prized for working toward a common goal — hence the old truism, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

“We reward groupiness,” he said. “From when people are very young, they’re trying to be a part of a group, like putting on a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt. When you get older, it’s more abstract and complicated but still powerful.”

An emphasis on community

Philadelphia is seeing a lot of new boutique fitness studios, which are typically smaller spaces with specialized group classes.

Come mid-November, Philly’s fitness scene will get a new addition in Rittenhouse Square — Barry’s Bootcamp, a favorite workout of such celebrities as Kim Kardashian West, Harry Styles, and Victoria Beckham.

Barry’s, which was founded in 1998, is credited with coining high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which has participants doing multiple short sets, usually anywhere from 20 to 90 seconds, of fast-paced cardio with brief breaks in between. During the studio’s one-hour-long workout, participants split their time between the treadmill and strength training with weights in a room that resembles a nightclub.

For HIIT to be fully effective, participants have to push themselves as hard as they can during the workouts — which is easier when you don’t feel alone.

“Working side by side as a community creates strong bonds between participants who inspire, support, and hold each other accountable inside and outside of the studio,” said David Petruzzi, the West Coast director of curriculum for Barry’s Bootcamp.

Having a space that feels comfortable and judgment-free is crucial to maintaining positive motivation during a group workout, said Joel Fish, a sports psychologist who has worked with the 76ers, Flyers, and Phillies.

“In psychology, we have what we call mental blocks, which are certain thoughts and feelings that get in the way of us being able to push ourselves,” Fish said. “It might be tiredness or insecurities. When somebody else is involved, it helps us to overcome our mental blocks because we are in it together with someone else. But it can’t just be anybody, it has to be someone you trust.”

Instructors who connect with their clients can form bonds that bring participants back, said Abby Behrends, a group fitness instructor at City Fitness.

“I try to make people feel present, like they’re right in this alongside me,” said Behrends, who tries to make eye contact with every student, multiple times. “It goes back to starting and finishing something as a team.”

A dose of healthy competition

Jeff Jubelirer, who lives in Villanova, grew up playing competitive tennis, then worked out at the gym by himself. It wasn’t until his early 40s that Jubelirer considered joining a group class.

“My wife joined a gym called Tribe after hearing about it from friends and told me that I absolutely needed to try it,” said Jubelirer, 48.

At first, Jubelirer, who works for a Philadelphia communications firm, was skeptical he could get a real workout in a 30-minute HIIT session.

But after one class, “I realized that I’m not as good as I thought I was,” he said. “I realized that it’s not about how much you workout, it’s about how you workout. I had never experienced that before.”

Comparing himself to others in the group also pushed him to try harder.

“It’s in my nature and that helped me improve,” he said. “I look at my classmates who might be more fit or more motivated and I push myself.”

A 2016 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that competition can be a stronger form of motivation than social bonding. Study participants were split into four exercise groups: team competition, individual competition, a noncompetitive group that supports each other online, and a control group. Attendance rates in the competitive groups went up by 90% and were double that of the socially supportive group.

“When one person responds to competition in the room, it pushes other people to start increasing their activity,” said Damon Centola, an associate professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and the senior author of the paper. “It’s positive reinforcement that stirs this sense of social aspiration. But in the social support group, people looked to their peers for social encouragement and if their peers didn’t respond, they became less interested in exercising.”

But when he interviewed study participants in the team competition group afterward, they credited support from their team members for their success.

“People grab the feature that seems the most resonant with their beliefs about themselves,” Centola said. “They might believe that when they go exercise, it feels good to them because they like support, but that might not be what’s going on.”

Jubelirer hasn’t returned to individual workouts since starting at Tribe, which he visits four to five times a week before work.

“When I’m by myself, I don’t have discipline,” he said. “I’ll take a swig of water and walk around. But with other people there and 20-second breaks, I’m motivated to be my best self.”