Building a Body Beautiful, Part III

By Liz Massey, March 12, 2015.

The old 20th century stereotype of exercise as a primarily solitary activity, epitomized by Alan Sillitoe in his 1959 short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” doesn’t stand up to 21st century research.

Far from being a frill or merely a personal preference, the choice to join a group fitness activity could be one of the smartest decisions a health-minded person might make.

Recent research suggests that group exercise – whether in the form of a fitness class at the gym, participation in a sports league or just taking a walk with a friend – unleashes a flood of chemicals in the brain, triggering the same responses that have traditionally made collective activities such as dancing, laughter or even religion so compelling.

Photo courtesy of Let’s Get Outdoors AZ.


It appears that something biologically significant happens when we get hot and sweaty with our peers. A 2010 issue of Biology Letters contained a study by researchers from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, who divided the university’s famed rowing team into teams of six, each of which performed a series of identical workouts on rowing machines. The only variable was whether the workouts were performed alone or in teams, with the six machines synchronized by the crew’s coxswain.

After each workout, a blood-pressure cuff was tightened around one arm of each subject until he reported pain, to see how well the endorphins produced by members of each were able to dampen the sensation. The rowers’ pain threshold was consistently twice as high after exercising with their teammates compared to exercising alone.

The benefits of group exercise extend to those experiencing a health crisis or distressing life events, as well. A March 2008 study in the journal Birth, by University of Taiwan researchers, reported that Taiwanese women taking part in an exercise support program were less likely to have postpartum depression than those who did not. And an Ohio State University study reported in the June 2007 Journal of Cancer Survivorship found that group exercise programs improved the physical and psychological well-being of women being treated for early-stage breast cancer.

Just being in physical proximity is unlikely to be the primary driver of these benefits. University of Saskatchewan professor Kevin Spink has found that exercisers who feel a greater sense of “groupness” and cohesion within an exercise class are more punctual, have better attendance and even work harder.

Spink and other researchers have identified factors that make some crowds “groupier” than others, such as the existence of group norms. And while a shift in the past decade from sign-up exercise classes to drop-in classes has made it more difficult to build cohesion in these groups, it’s far more important what the exerciser thinks about the class, as he asserted in an article in the Canadian publication The Globe and Mail.

“As long as I perceive the people I’m exercising with as a group, my adherence is way better,” Spink said.

Photo courtesy of Let’s Get Outdoors AZ.


Echo’s online Organizations & Clubs directory section lists many LGBT-friendly sports/fitness groups, and many more exist throughout the Valley of the Sun. One of them, the Let’s Get Outdoors AZ (LGOS Arizona on Facebook) group for lesbians, has used the power of social bonding to help its members achieve their health goals while having a good time.

LGO started as a Facebook group in 2011 and currently has 919 members, according to Gwen Ammen, a group participant. The organization hosts activities that have included bike riding, horseback riding, hiking, camping, indoor rock climbing, golfing, archery, walks around Tempe Town Lake and road trips to Flagstaff to explore the Lava River Cave and Tonto Natural Bridge. The group also hosts more sedentary activities such as holiday light tours and game nights.

Ammen described the group’s appeal as diverse – in both activities and group members.

“We are a group of women who likes to try many different things and we are always open to new ideas, “ she said. “We have a lot of fun together and we are constantly meeting new people and making friends while maintaining activities both indoors and out.”

LGO members are free to suggest and lead activities if they so choose. This boosts motivation to do fitness activities more often, Ammen asserted.

“I would find more excuses not to do things or to put it off (without the group),” she said. “I think a big part of the group’s appeal goes back to the camaraderie and the fact that everyone can be a leader in our activities if they want to be.”

Ammen recently took on the task of organizing a “Biggest Loser Challenge” within the group. The contest, which currently has 24 participants, runs through April and is structured similarly to the popular TV show for which it is named.

Despite the challenge being a competitive endeavor – with prizes being awarded for the greatest weight loss and for the most active participants – Ammen said the women were supporting each other’s efforts.

“Since we are part of Facebook, we send encouraging notes or challenges to one another,” she said. “Everyone seems to be equally supportive and no one has to feel left out. They can choose their level of participation, but we still all support each other.”

Ammen’s partner, Karen Dobbins, is a fellow LGO member who is assisting her in running the contest, said she noticed that the contest, “gets people doing things they wanted to but didn’t seem able to get to previously. People share apps and recipes, so they are getting positive information from another source.”

The size of LGO has been one reason the group was able to build such an attractive portfolio of activities, according to Bev Fisher, one of several administrators for the organization.

“LGO is an amazing group of ladies who I want on my team,” she said. “They are very supportive and kind. There are many fun activities to choose from – it is like going to summer camp. You can choose what you want to participate in, and whatever you choose will be rewarding.”


Photo courtesy of Let’s Get Outdoors AZ.

Sometimes it’s not just the fact that a group shares your interest in a particular healthy activity that makes it a good fit. According to Conrad Franz, commissioner of the Arizona Gay Volleyball League (AZGV), many of the 200 players involved in his organization appreciate that they’re playing with other LGBT people and supportive straight allies.

“Playing any sport with like-minded individuals … who also understand what you may have gone through in high school sports helps create a safe environment for all,” he said. “It also helps allow players the opportunity to grow and develop in the sport without ridicule.”

AZGV is now in its 11th year as a sand volleyball league and includes 37 teams spread across five divisions. Franz said that his organization’s emphasis on player involvement in the governance of the league aided in keeping people coming back to the pits, year after year.

“Participating in AZGV does help keep me motivated to continue playing sand volleyball,” he said. “Teams and individuals continue to return because the league is run well, we keep it fun and exciting, and the level of play is competitive for each division. Players also have a say in how the league is grown and help create change in the organization for the betterment of all.”

Regardless of your fitness goals, or what type of group setting will best help you achieve those goals, taking up a new activity and making new friends within the community are always in season. What are you waiting for?

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