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Group Exercise: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When Jackie Sorensen created the first aerobics class in 1969, she had no idea just how big a phenomenon it would become. Fast-forward thirty-plus years and aerobics is still alive and well, not in its original Jane Fonda form but in its current incarnation as “group exercise”.

The term was created to encompass all forms of exercise taught in a group setting. Under this definition falls traditional aerobic dance, specialty dance exercise like belly dancing, latin, and hip hop, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, athletic training, and group strength training – basically anything that is taught by an instructor to a group.

Man is a social animal. The female of the species is even more of a social creature. This probably explains why women make up the majority of group exercise classes even in those that are masculine-oriented like kickboxing and boot camp military-style classes. For many women, it is simply more fun to work out together than do it alone.

Group exercise is an effective way to make working out a regular habit. You have to stick to a particular schedule so exercise becomes part of your daily routine. It is a time-efficient way to work out because you don’t waste time talking while you exercise. However, strengths can also be weaknesses. Here are good and bad points about group exercise.

Peer pressure
At its best, peer pressure makes you drag your tail to class even when you don’t feel like it. It inspires you to keep up with your classmates when you feel like quitting. But at its worst, it can lead to injury if you try to follow what everyone else is doing even if it hurts you.

I once had a twentysomething client who almost fainted in class because of peer pressure. The classmate she was trying to keep up with? A fit seventy-year-old woman. Her pride just wouldn’t let her accept that this “old lady” was in better shape than she was. After that experience, she threw in the towel and exercised at her own pace.

Many yoga injuries are from participants “forcing” themselves to do advanced poses they are not ready for. This could be due to an inborn competitive spirit or embarrassment at not being up to par with others.

Familiarity
Just like in “Cheers”, it can be comforting to work out in a group where everyone knows your name. The time before and after the class is spent in pleasant conversation. But not everyone enjoys this. I know someone who actually likes the anonymity of a class where she doesn’t know a soul because they are all outside her social circle.

When class participants are civil to one another, it is a delight to exercise. When they are nasty and mataray, it is the opposite. A friend was enrolled in a large gym where the students would growl at her if she took their spot even if she came ahead of them and would hog all the equipment claiming it was reserved for their friends. She said she quit because it was too stressful. Instead of looking forward to exercising, she was dreading it.

Territorial
Women are territorial beings. When someone else takes the spot they are used to, they feel disoriented. This is a normal feeling. If they are polite, they don’t make a fuss and remind themselves to come earlier. But if they are prima donnas, some very unfeminine behavior can occur like tapping the person on the shoulder and haughtily saying, “Move, this is my spot”.

If the “intruder” is timid, she submissively moves to another place and an uneasy peace ensues. But if she stands for her rights, a word war can easily begin, which can then lead to future cold stares and looks that could kill. They say that women are gentle and peace loving but let me tell you that when they are together in a group, mob mentality takes over and they can be downright aggressive.

Class size
There is a palpable energy in the air when people exercise together to the beat of music. It is definitely more exciting when there are more people than when there are very few. But large classes are not safe.

Ideally, a class shouldn’t have more than 15 participants. Unless there are three teachers, safety is compromised when there are 30 to 50 people in class, which can happen in mega-gyms. There is no way a single teacher can keep her eye on all the students.

An acquaintance fell off her bench and fractured her wrist in a very large step class but the teacher didn’t even notice something was wrong because my friend was all the way in the back of the room.

Instructors
One size does not fit all. The teacher should know how to modify the exercises. This means she should know how to give several variations of the same exercise to be able to fit the special needs of students like those who have knee or back issues. Otherwise, beginners may get intimidated and never join again. Or they may get injured trying to follow.

Make your own class
Ask around at local gyms for instructors (most are free-lance professionals) who can teach a class in your office after work (very convenient) or at home with friends and neighbors. Studies have shown that the more socially cohesive a group, the longer its participants will exercise together.

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