Why Working Out In A Group Works

We often get calls from potential new SFCF athletes who are interested in Crossfit but are concerned that group-style exercise classes just aren’t for them.   These calls most often come from men who (I think) have images of 80s-style step aerobics or jumping around on a mini-tramp with Brittany Spears “Toxic” playing in the background.   I try to re-assure them that a Crossfit-style group class bears no resemblance to the typical group exercise class at a regular gym, that working out in a group helps athletes push themselves harder, etc. and then I suggest that they come try it out to see what I mean.   These same athletes almost universally report that, while they never envisioned themselves working out in a group (much less liking it), they have a complete shift on this idea when they come to a Crossfit class.   Until SFCFer Damon Waldron forwarded me this great article (below) by Beth Carter at Wired Magazine, I, too, had no clue that this phenomenon had scientific backing and is called the Kohler Effect, which is the idea that less-capable individuals perform better in a group setting.    Check out the full funny and insightful article below.

Turbocharge Your Workout — Choose a Gym Buddy Stronger Than You, By Beth Carter – WIRED MAGAZINE

During a workout at a CrossFit-type gym awhile ago, I realized that group fitness classes work because people challenge each other, consciously or subconsciously. This came to me when a woman in my group, who also happened to be nine months pregnant, was seriously out-lifting me. As my muscles began to give out, I thought, if she can do it, I certainly can’t quit now.

Turns out my competitive epiphany is backed by science.

A study out of Kansas State University says we work harder when working out with a partner we perceive — rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter — to be just a bit better than we are. The study builds on what’s known as the Kohler motivation gain effect — the idea that less-capable individuals perform better in a group setting — and found hitting the gym with someone thought to be better than ourselves boosts endurance and intensity by as much as 200 percent.

“What this study suggests is that the opportunity to compare yourself to someone else can be motivating, and on top of that is the idea of being interdependent on someone else,” said Brandon Irwin, an assistant professor of kinesiology who led the study.

The findings, published in the journal of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, could provide new insights into how to help sedentary people get active.

“People in our field try to address the issue of physical inactivity,” Irwin said. “Strategies to motivate people rarely use group dynamics to help them achieve that, which is interesting because people like to exercise with other people.”

Irwin and co. tested whether we exercise harder when alone, with a virtual partner, or in competition. They had college-aged women exercise alone on stationary bikes, telling them to pedal as long as they could.

Then they all came back and biked with a virtual partner — a looped video recording of another person on a stationary bike — and told their buddy had ridden 40 percent longer than they did. That prompted the women to ride an average of nine minutes longer than they did alone. Later, the women returned for sessions in which they believed they were part of a team with the virtual partner. Having already been told their virtual partners had out-performed them, the women worked out as much as 160 percent longer.

There are many potential reasons for these results. It could be camaraderie or a desire not to let your partner down. Still, what didn’t happen was discouragement and giving up.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how big the motivation gains were,” said Irwin, “but I think the most interesting thing was that for the partners who were the weak link in the group, the fact that their motivation wasn’t only greater than in the other two groups but it actually increased over time.”

There is a threshold, however. Previous research has shown that working out with someone who is at your level or much, much better doesn’t really motivate us. The key is to find someone you consider just a little better, so meeting or beating their performance is an achievable goal.

The next step is determining how best to apply the findings. Deb Feltz, a kinesiology professor at Michigan State University, is toying with the idea of computer-generated fitness buddies that would nullify all the excuses that come with coordinating schedules with humans. Irwin’s next step is figuring out how to match people up with the best possible workout partner, kind of like a dating website for getting fit. With the marvels of modern technology, the person wouldn’t have to be in the same country, let alone the same room.

“In our study, they were just projected onto the wall,” he said. “You don’t have to be in the same place as your partner; they could be in Denmark. The idea is that person is good for you.”

Being part of a group — a team — can be a real motivator. We see this all the time in games like pick-up basketball. Would I have pushed myself so hard had that pregnant woman not shown me up? Probably not, according to this study.

So thanks, pregnant lady.

By Beth Carter, WIRED Magazine