A consistent workout regimen does not come easily to everyone, which is why many people set goals to exercise more as a new year starts. And while the gyms tend to flood every January for a month or so, the increased attendance doesn’t last.
My only impetus to exercise through high school was volleyball, and the training our coach made us do to stay in shape for the sport. After graduating, without anyone telling me what to do, I barely made it to a gym for years despite repeated pledges to get back into it.
That all changed when I discovered group fitness. The first class I did was a bootcamp taught by a cheerleader at my college gym. It was fun and far more efficient than my usual visits, during which I aimlessly wandered around for an hour. Next, I tried one of the spin classes. When the timing of the campus class offerings didn’t align with my schedule the next semester, I found a local workout studio with boxing, spin, and pilates. I was hooked.
That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of lulls since then, but to this day, classes are the only thing that get me to work out consistently. I’m not good at running. Home workout videos don’t do it for me. I’ve tried rejoining gyms multiple times when that seemed more convenient or cost-effective, but without anyone holding me accountable or telling me what to do, I ended up working out far less.
“A collection of individuals is not the same as a group,” said Alex Benson, director of the Group Experiences Laboratory and associate professor of psychology at Western University. “Something that really heightens that sense of being part of a real group is a shared purpose, and working towards similar goals in exercise as opposed to working out at a gym alongside other people that are doing exercises is a very different experience.”
During my varied gym memberships, I often found myself more intimidated by working out alongside others as opposed to with them. I’d get in my head about not knowing what I was doing, perceiving judgment or worrying that I looked dumb. Trying to take a turn on a squat rack in between buff gym rats can also be incredibly intimidating, so I’d opt to skip it, get bored, and promptly leave.
According to Benson, when you see other people doing the same things with you, it can help boost your own sense of confidence. People tend to feel even more confident when they exercise in a group class if they’re around people who are similar to them in age or identity, he says. Plus, the shared purpose and mutual benefit make it more psychologically appealing.
Jamie Shapiro, a professor of sport and performance psychology at Denver University, traced that same phenomenon back to self-determination theory, or SDT.
“[SDT] says that one of our primary motivators or psychological needs is relatedness,” said Shapiro. “So, you know, relating to others and connecting to others is a huge motivator for any activity, including exercise. The feeling you get through relating to others or connecting to others while exercising can really be a huge motivator.”
That relatedness can come from a shared competitive spirit – or it might be a sense of unity and inclusion. I didn’t have to try very hard to find classes in New York City that are predominantly millennial women, but I’ve definitely weeded out some that were overly competitive or too intense.
Self-determination theory also says that people need autonomy – feeling in control of your own behaviors and goals – and competence. Shapiro said that whether a class satisfies those needs is often up to the leader or instructor. If their style makes you feel safe and comfortable, encourages you, and gives options for various bodies or skill levels, you’ll be more likely to return.
I can vouch for the importance of instructors based on my years of trial and error in group fitness. Not only have I explored and taken the time to find the classes I enjoy most, but I’ve also learned that the instructor fully dictates the vibe, and I won’t take another class with a leader who doesn’t make me feel motivated.
“It’s important that leaders cultivate a group identity,” Benson said. “Find an instructor you like and come back.”
I’ve disliked instructors for reasons ranging from their music choices to their entire leadership style. If they’re playing heavy metal and pushing us aggressively without offering any modifications, I’m going to check out. But that’s all based on personal preference – and everyone has their own vibe.
The same individuality applies to working out in general and what you need to stay motivated. Shapiro said that group fitness is great for people who are motivated by connection with others and accountability, but it won’t be right for everybody.
“An important piece when it comes to motivation for exercise is not only finding activities that fit with your lifestyle and other obligations, but that you can find a way to enjoy,” said Shapiro. “I also like to look at physical activity in a different way, that it doesn't have to be going to the gym, it doesn't have to be going to a class. It could be going for a 10-minute walk at lunch or walking with your kids after work. Any movement and physical activity has a lot of health benefits as well.”
Shapiro enjoys workout classes, not because she’s loving every second of them, but because she values a shared experience and feels accomplished afterwards. Seeking a feeling of accomplishment is a huge motivating factor, which is why she also suggests setting realistic goals.
“A lot of times we set these big lofty goals and then if we don't reach them, we just give up,” she said. “There's kind of an ‘all or nothing’ mentality, like I didn’t get to the gym this week, so I failed already. I really like the mentality for exercise that some is better than none. Even if you can get to the gym or a class once a week, that's great. Maybe next week you go twice.”
Setting a range of goals can also be helpful – for example, getting to the gym between two and four times in a week rather than aiming for a minimum of four times. That way, if you don’t make it four times, you won’t necessarily feel like a failure or compelled to give up.
If you are interested in testing out group fitness, ClassPass is an easy and more affordable way to explore different types of classes. I’ve settled on a solid rotation of three or so different studios (strength training at Sessions, yoga sculpt at CorePower, and spin at SoulCycle), so ClassPass makes sense for me, but most studios have their own membership options as well.
Scheduling classes in advance helps me stick to my workout schedule, because regardless of how I’m feeling when the time actually arrives, I’ll either lose or owe money if I skip it. Planning ahead is always a good way to stay on track, whether that involves carving out time for the gym, a run, a walk, or a home workout. And if you miss a couple days, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Just keep searching for a way to move that feels good and aligns with your values, and please keep the gym selfies to a minimum. ●