According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, working out in a group lowers stress by 26% and significantly improves one’s quality of life compared to those who exercise individually. We’re all for busting stress and having fun, so these statistics piqued our interest. To understand exactly why working out with friends can be better than going it alone, we dove into the science behind stress and exercise.
Why is stress so bad for us?
When we’re stressed, our body releases cortisol, a hormone response to the “fight or flight” feeling all humans experience. Frequently producing too much cortisol can cause adrenal fatigue, leaving you perpetually tired, anxious, and irritable. Too much cortisol can also suppress immune function over time, leading to a whole host of problems, including weight gain, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, premature skin aging, and even skin & menstrual problems. If left untreated, stress can lead to life-threatening issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
According to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association study, exercising in a group or with a partner also requires less effort because it’s more fun than working out alone.
Is stress always bad?
Despite how awful it may feel at the time, stress can be beneficial: that fight or flight feeling is what alerts us to dangerous situations, and in non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate us to meet deadlines, nail a job interview, give a public speech, and even improve mental performance. Plus, cortisol can actually boost immune function when infrequently released in small doses. In sum, stress can be beneficial in small amounts but if you begin feeling overwhelmed, it’s probably doing more harm than good.
Exercise and social connection: a stress-busting combination
According to Dr. Michael Roizen, Chief Wellness Officer of the Cleveland Clinic, “Research shows that one of the most vital elements in reducing the negative health effects of stress is to have strong social networks.” Additionally, supportive friends can also help you stay fit and boost endorphins:
- Working out with others—especially a regular group of people—can create a sense of camaraderie and accountability for everyone involved, i.e., a feeling of “we’re all in this together”.
- Exercise with friends can provide that motivational boost you need to go the extra mile when you feel like giving up.
- According to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association study, exercising in a group or with a partner also requires less effort because it’s more fun than working out alone.
Better friends make for better stress reduction
The more comfortable you are with your workout partner(s), the more stress you can expect to beat during your routine. Research shows that while working out with a stranger (like a trainer) can improve your physical results, you’ll get the best stress reduction from working out with a good friend, for the same reasons that spending time with someone you’re comfortable with can improve your mental wellbeing (e.g. emotional support, social connection, a chance to vent).
Working out with friends in the age of COVID
We know what you’re thinking—okay, exercising with friends is good for my mental and physical health, but how am I supposed to do that safely during a pandemic? Here are a few suggestions:
- Exercise outside. Any contactless activity, like yoga, running, and even strength training (bring your own kettlebell!), can be done with a friend or group of friends safely outdoors if you keep adequate physical distance and don’t share equipment.
- Embrace video conferencing. Because video conferencing platforms like Zoom allow us to connect with others safely from the comfort of our own homes, they are an ideal platform for group exercise. Video conferencing isn’t constrained by geographical distance, either; maybe you have a cousin on the other side of the country you haven’t seen in years that you could invite to do a virtual aerobics class with you. Many local yoga studios and gyms are offering both live and recorded virtual classes, making it easier than ever not to miss a class.
- Join a social workout app. Strava and MapMyFitness are two great workout apps that connect you with other fitness-minded individuals and allow you to share your mileage, routes, calories burned, and other fitness information. But these apps can be much more than just sharing your trail run or bike ride—they are online communities where other users encourage one another to fulfill fitness goals, share workout suggestions, and even train together for races and marathons.
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