What are the social benefits of exercise?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of both the physiological and mental benefits of exercise but you may be surprised to learn that there are social benefits to exercise, too.
We know that the physical benefits of exercise include improved heart and lung function, increased metabolism, reduced blood pressure, improved glucose tolerance and that it helps maintain bone mass. We know that regular exercise can help us live longer, too, and that exercise is good for anxiety and that working out can help relieve the symptoms of mild depression.
What Are The Social Benefits of Exercise?
Some of us love putting our headphones on and hitting the treadmill or the trail and running alone. Maybe it’s the solitude and the peace and quiet that does it. Maybe we’re relishing the opportunity to do something for ourselves by ourselves. Exercising alone can be beautifully selfish. And even in a busy gym, it’s easy to be anti-social and to feel that there’s no one else and nothing else but that one extra mile, that one extra circuit, that one extra rep. With the right headphones and the perfect soundtrack, we can be alone even when surrounded by other people. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to exercise away from a social group. Sharing a workout with other people can be irritating and frustrating. There’s always going to be at least one person in the gym acting like a dick. Not all of us want to join a class or a team or be part of a club.
For some people, however, the social benefits of exercise are as important as the physical activity itself.
The Very Well Fit website documents a study from 2007 that was published in the British Medical Journal. Two groups of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer were given an exercise regimen that meant half exercised in a group whilst the other half exercised at home alone. Researchers found that those exercising in a group reported a higher quality of life in the post-study questionnaire and when researchers followed up with both groups 6-months later, those who’d exercised as part of the group reported a continuing higher quality of life.
Exercise is a great way to meet new people and to catch up with friends. Just by being in the gym, you already have something in common with everyone else: a need or desire to work out. Stick at the gym for long enough and you’ll begin to notice familiar faces. You may never form a close relationship with these people. You may never see them outside the gym (equally, you may very well do), but it’s always nice to have someone to say hello to. It’s good to be part of a community. It can make small talk in the changing rooms easier or the walk out to the car park a little shorter. You don’t have to be super-friendly. You don’t have to invite these people into your personal life, but you can take what you need from a gym friendship: helpful advice, a tutorial on a new piece of equipment, someone to play against, someone to spot for, someone to say hello to.
Some physical activities can easily be made into social events. Running doesn’t have to be solitary. You can join a running club or a local Couch 2 5K event or do a park run. You can jog with a friend.
Team sports often come with in-built social interaction: nights out, social events, practices etc — whatever builds morale off the pitch or field or track is often encouraged. Teams don’t have to be competitive either. You can grab some friends and form a 5 a-side.
Exercise classes are a great way to meet new people. They’re a perfect opportunity to blend into a group, too. Yoga, for example, is an individual practice but within a class, it can feel social.
Often there are knock-on benefits to physical activity. Exercise has mental and emotional benefits that transcend the physical effort. The more you exercise the better you’ll begin to feel. Many people notice a rise in confidence and self-esteem. You may begin to feel better about your body. You may find that a natural side-effect of feeling good about yourself is that you’ll improve your social skills outside the gym. Maybe you’ll start going out more. Perhaps you’ll make more plans with friends.
Exercise can help reduce feelings of loneliness and that’s important as we grow older. If you go to an aerobics class, for example, then you don’t even need to speak to another person. Sometimes just being in a group can help us feel less isolated.
Exercise isn’t always something that we want to do. Motivation can sometimes be in short supply. One of the most powerful social benefits to exercise is accountability — having someone else keeping you on track. If you go to a group or class with a friend, then it’s harder to keep saying no, I’m not coming today. It’s far easier to sack off a session if you’re only answerable to yourself. You might have a running partner and their success might be dependent on your training. Fear of disappointing or letting someone else down can often surpass our own lack of enthusiasm.
Exercising socially makes us more likely to turn up and that’s no small thing.
The Huff Post suggests that group exercise can also have physiological benefits and exercise doesn’t have to be aerobic or gym-based. Walking with friends, swimming, horse riding or even gardening can count as exercise and both offer superb social opportunities.
The Love to Know website wrote about an interesting study into the social benefits of exercise. A researcher in the UK studied a group of gym-goers over the course of 2-years and reported on a number of factors:
- People arranged to go to the gym at certain times and would often go for drinks afterwards or socialise outside the gym.
- People would still go to workout even if they felt tired.
- People used to the gym as a way to ask for the advice or experience of one of their ‘gym buddies’ such as financial advice or advice on cars or technology.
- If someone repeatedly missed a workout, then the group would check in on that person to make sure they were OK.
Often we aren’t just exercising alongside other people but we’re making a community. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we do alone and neither does it need to be team-based.
If you think you’d benefit from exercising socially, then there’s bound to be a place, a workout, a sport, a team, a club, a meeting or a friend that will work for you.
And even if you regularly exercise alone, don’t discount the power of being active in groups. The support, advice and encouragement from other people can be an invaluable asset in improving both physical and mental health.
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