Getting fit is an admirable ambition but it’s not one that everyone shares – even in the same friendship group. To avoid spending hours on your own at the gym, one writer explores how virtual group classes can help beat the loneliness of working out.
We all have our own unique fitness journey that often includes a few steps forward, one or two back and definitely a handful of plateaus. Not everyone loves HIIT classes, is up for hot yoga or can handle a spin class. No two people (even professional athletes) have the same exercise routine or experience inevitable hiccups in the same way.
Instead, we go on that journey alone: the setbacks, deciding when to skip a workout, the early morning sessions, the late-night last-minute effort… and it can get pretty lonely.
Combatting loneliness through movement
After all, no one can do the work for you, even with a personal trainer or a fitness plan, you still have to show up and do the work yourself, by yourself. That’s why online fitness classes became such a popular alternative to working out at home alone during the pandemic; for one session a week, people could virtually share the experience with a group.
Exercising in a group not only helps to increase your motivation to push your workout (or even turn up at all), it also improves your mental health by combatting feelings of loneliness and social isolation. The leading mental health charity Mind defines loneliness as a feeling we get when our need for rewarding social relationships isn’t met – which can happen when you’re alone or with a group of people. Loneliness can have a significant impact on our mental health if it isn’t addressed.
With the lack of socialising in the past 18 months, we’re still feeling and working through the effects of that social deprivation. As social beings, we crave connection and support from others, even during exercise, and having a group to workout with can help you stay focused and motivated on your fitness journey.
Virtual classes allow us to make firm friends… from home
Since gyms reopened and indoor fitness classes returned in May, over 50% of gym-goers have opted to stick to their home workouts and cancel their gym memberships. Meanwhile, over 70% of those who adopted virtual online classes said they’d continue with them even now they can go to the gym.
As soon as the pandemic hit last year, writer and editor Jade Scott started doing virtual group classes she found on Instagram and by her gym instructors to fill the fitness-shaped hole in her life. Scott tells Stylist: “I love that virtual workouts have become a great alternative, especially with our busy schedules to work around. If ever I feel I can’t get to the gym or the park I will definitely seek out an online class to join in with.”
But it’s not just about the energy of the workout or being held accountable, Scott says – it’s also about how the social connection can improve her wellbeing. “I learned pretty quickly that the social aspect and my adopted gym buddies are vital to my mental health and wellbeing.
“They’re my cheerleaders, teammates and, sometimes, my healthy competition (when the mood strikes).”
While everyone is at different points of their own journey, virtual group classes are a chance to forge friendship groups where you’re connected by the goal of self-improvement through fitness whether that’s mental or physical. For Scott, that “sense of community is irreplaceable”.
Instructors benefit from virtual communities just as much as we do
Fitness instructor and founder of Keep It simpElle, Elle Linton, believes that this community can be important, especially for those who suffer from feelings of loneliness.
“Not everyone wants or needs that community feeling but for others, it can be vital,” Linton explains. “When people think about the benefits of exercise, they mostly think of things directly related to movement itself – the physical benefits. But there are many other benefits such as the social and emotional elements, which are basic human needs beyond just moving your body.”
Thankfully, these fitness communities also transcend the virtual class. Social media enables like-minded individuals to continue the conversation about their latest workouts, injuries or queries in between workouts. As a result, online fitness classes create a peer-to-peer support group for anyone who is working on their physical or mental wellbeing and in need of support or social interaction.
Group exercise makes us work harder
“A fitness support network can serve as motivation or accountability,” Linton continues, “or it could be the only time someone gets to socialise with other people, for many different reasons. Having a community also provides support on your fitness journey when you have questions or need advice.”
Especially after 18 months of feeling more disconnected than ever, virtual group fitness classes are an opportunity to meet new people, boost your mood and get in a killer workout.
Research has also shown that in a group environment, individuals are more likely to work harder in their workout due to the audience effect of being surrounded by others and wanting to do our best.
Online classes may be ‘even better’ than IRL sessions for community-building
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, previously told Stylist: “You’re probably less likely to come up with excuses and skip [workouts], if it means letting someone else down. That sense of accountability can be a helpful aid to some people.”
Virtual classes also offer a more flexible and cheaper alternative to a regular gym membership which can range anywhere between £30-£120 per month for one adult in the UK. While virtual classes have been around for a few years, the pandemic saw the digital fitness industry boom. Strava reported an average of 2 million new users registered on its app each month in 2020, while Peloton doubled its previous year’s earnings in six months and hit over 3 million users.
With their similarities to in-person classes, Linton says that online classes might be “even better” for creating new connections and getting in a workout around day-to-day life. “With the right setup, you can get to know members of your community even better which is a great way to form friendships as adults, which we know can be difficult.”
Social isolation is common within all age groups of adults and many individuals are still recovering from the mental health impact of working from home without socialising for a sustained period of time.
Boost mental health and keep loneliness at bay
One of the main reasons behind Linton starting her online classes was due to how lonely she felt during the first lockdown. “I definitely have felt lonely at times on my own personal journey,” she admits.
“The most recent and significant time was when we went into our first lockdown in 2020 and that was the driver for me to create my online classes – to have a space to connect with others interested in what I enjoyed (running, cycling and getting strong) at a time where we felt cut off from others.”
Linton is proof that it’s not only the participants of the class who benefit from online communities: “I’ve always said that I need them as much as they need me! We created a great community that came together out of tough circumstances.”
Even attending one group class a week can break up your weekly routine, boost your mental health and keep feelings of loneliness at bay. As Scott echoes: “Solo workouts can be great (accompanied by your own curated playlist of course) but for those moments when you dip, it’s good – healthy even – to have a group session to offer an alternative.”
If you’re struggling with loneliness on your fitness journey, why not throw in a virtual online class once or twice a week to become a part of that community you’re craving.
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