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Madison, Wis. — It's 5:30am on a snowy morning. This is the year you get in shape, and so far you've been good about sticking to your new exercise routine.
But this morning your motivation is waning. You didn't get a great night's sleep, and your bed is so warm. You can skip just one day without it being a big deal, right?
Those bargains are familiar to many fitness aspirants, as is the low-level shame that accompanies skipping a workout and breaking a promise you've made to yourself. But the difficult task of starting and maintaining a fitness regimen could be made easier by not going it alone.
The accountability and motivation of a group exercise dynamic may be just what you need to keep moving toward your fitness goals.
What are the advantages of group exercise?
"That's a big one," says UW Health Aquatic Center instructor Kate Hemesath. "If you have to wake up early in the morning, you're not as likely to skip your workout if you're going to a group, as opposed to working out in the gym by yourself."
Whether it's an instructor-led class at a gym or fitness center or an informal group of exercises bonded by mutual interests and affection, participation is spurred by the group dynamic. And once you're there, you'll probably work hard to keep up with the group.
"With group exercise classes, you have other people's energy driving you," says UW Health Fitness Center fitness instructor Karla Bock.
Formal group classes also tend to cost money, one of the world's oldest known motivating forces.
"If you need that push to be more consistent in your exercise, paying for a class may help," Bock says. "The fact that you paid for the class can be a motivator to get you to go, and if you miss it, you know the coach is going to ask you where you were last week."
There is a group for every exercise whim and preference. The Fitness Center where Bock and Hemesath teach has nearly 50 land- and water-based classes to choose from, ranging from TRX to aqua yoga to aerobic dance to Zumba.
"The group format can apply to any type of exercise," Bock says. "You see it more with running, biking and swimming but it's great for strength training and circuits and CrossTraining. Everybody is always doing something, always moving."
There is more to exercising than rolling out of bed, lacing up your cross trainers and hitting the pavement for a five-mile run. Instructor-led group classes can help you maintain a safe, healthy exercise routine.
"Having a legitimate warm-up and cool-down is important," Hemesath says, adding that those integral components are the ones most commonly skipped by people who exercise on their own. "With group classes, you're getting the expertise of the instructor," Bock says. "They'll make sure the exercises you do are safe and they'll watch your form."
Qualified instructors can also address any physical problems you may have, and cater your exercises accordingly. "Know your body and make sure you tell the instructor if there is a limitation," Hemesath says. "They'd be more than happy to incorporate different exercises, and, chances are, you're not the only person in class with that limitation."
The Social Factor
Both formal group exercise classes and informal exercise groups are "spurred by like interests and friendships," Bock says. "Exercise is a way for people who like spending time with each other to get together."
But even with all the aforementioned positive factors, Bock and Hemesath warn that not every group exercise opportunity is perfect for everybody. They offer these tips for people looking to find the right group exercise scenario:
Find the time that's right for you. Some people are morning people, some people aren't. Kids have to be taken to soccer practice or the orthodontist. Work sometimes runs late. Make sure your exercise group meets at a time your busy schedule can accommodate.
Set goals that can be achieved in a group format. "Make sure the people you are working out with have similar goals, so they don't feel like they're being held back and you're not pushing yourself too hard," Hemesath says.
"You can flip that, too," Bock says. "If you're part of a running group and you're faster than everyone else, you may not get everything out of the workout you want. It may be a slower pace than you typically go but the payoff is the camaraderie with friends. You need to decide what works for you."
Use the Internet. You won't have to look too hard. Bock and Hemesath suggest meetup.com as a great place to find an exercise group, or other things that match your interests.
Don't feel bad about not wanting to be part of an exercise group. Some people prefer the solitude of an individual workout. If you're one of those people, go with that. "It all comes back to what you want to get out of your exercise, "Bock says. "The social aspect of the group is really fun, but if you want to achieve something else, you may want to do it on your own."