My favorite fitness is solo fitness, but I’m increasingly in the minority on that one (or so it seems). There have always been group fitness opportunities but they seem to be increasing in number. Here in Boston, we have new boutique gyms and studios opening every month, and programs like ClassPass are making them more easily accessible to anyone (although their recent price hike might change that). One of the biggest free fitness movements in the country, the November Project, started here, and I can think of at least three or four free running clubs in my neighborhood alone.
One theory for why group fitness is becoming more popular has to do with the “rise of the importance of the instructor.” Take this piece from Business Insider, which includes the detail that “Zumba CEO Alberto Perlman chalks it all up to the rise of the instructor. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for an expert to show them how to exercise.”
I’ve certainly taken classes myself that served as introductions to new equipment or techniques (I’m thinking of TRX and yoga, neither of which I ever do on my own). I know I’m not alone in choosing certain classes because I like the instructor’s style, and avoiding others for the congruent reason. There’s no doubt that a skilled and charismatic instructor can help engage people through a fitness class.
If I had to guess, though, I’d lay money on relatedness being a more powerful motivating factor for group fitness than a desire for expert instruction or admiration of the instructor. The Business Insider article also notes, “Even more so, fitness experiences have lent themselves to acting as communities, as Sweaty Equity author and Bloomberg’s New York Bureau Chief Jason Kelly explained.”
We know that relatedness is one of the universal human needs that can drive engagement with a product or experience. We all want to feel connected to other people, and like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Group fitness can help us feel that. The effects are likely amplified for group fitness activities that have a strong shared meaning, like SoulCycle or the aforementioned November Project. You’re not just working out, you’re part of something.
The physical activity itself could also contribute to this sense of relatedness or belonging. There is research in psychology that suggests that coordinating your physical activity with other people brings you closer. Consider the drills that military platoons practice, or the work and coordination that goes into a choreographed dance. People who engage in these types of coordinated movements go on to cooperate more effectively with one another (van Baaren et al., 2004; Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). There is also evidence that when people do physical activity in a group, they spontaneously start to coordinate their movements (Codrons et al., 2014), which then leads into this cooperative spiral. We like moving in groups, and moving in groups makes us like each other, too.
My takeaway? Sure, talented instructors matter. But so does the fact of working out alongside someone else, because psychologically and physiologically, the coordinated movement feeds our need for relatedness. Group fitness is on the rise, and it’s doing so on the tide of relatedness.