The internet is filled with great advice from well-meaning advocates of exercise and the consensus is clear – if you want to have the best chance of sticking at your exercise regime and get the most out of it, then you should find someone or a group of people to exercise with. The benefits cited include:
Indeed, there is significant evidence to support the physiological benefits of working out with others, with studies such as Plante, Coscarelli and Ford, 2001 suggesting exercising with others can help reduce stress, make you work harder and improve wellbeing in comparison to exercising alone.
The significant issue to highlight is the psychological challenge of initiating group-based exercise participation, particularly for those who may have significant body image concerns. Body image dissatisfaction occurs when there is a negative difference between our body image reality and our ideal. This healthy body ideal is linked to social norms depicted in the media and affects both men and women in different ways. Women typically perceive a ‘thin ideal’ leading to attitudes related to a need to lose weight whereas men typically perceive a ‘muscular ideal’ leading to attitudes related to a need to bulk up and gain weight.
The Catch 22 here is that whilst physical exercise has been shown to have positive benefits on body image satisfaction, concerns with body image can prevent an individual from engaging in exercise in the first place. And the issue the websites don’t seem to talk about is that exercising with other people can be an additional social barrier to participation. According to Leary’s (1992) self-presentation framework, the way an individual presents themselves is strongly connected to cultural ideals such as the healthy body ideal, and this will shape how they feel they are being evaluated by others. Accordingly, those with the highest body image concerns (and who have the most to gain from exercise) report being the most likely to want to exercise on their own away from others in order to avoid embarrassment or shame. In fact, group exercise sessions where physique is mentioned can exacerbate the problem. The assumption of a lot of gyms and personal training businesses is that a fit and toned instructor acts as a powerful positive role model to participants. The reality is that unfortunately it can have the opposite effect by causing additional anxiety and a feeling that we are being judged.
The bottom line is that encouraging any form of exercise should be the goal. If exercising alone is the way an individual needs to do it in order to get started then this should be applauded and supported. Encouraging progression into supportive group exercise environments with other like- minded individuals will no doubt increase the likelihood that exercise behaviours will be maintained, but we need to be careful not to mistake which modality will give the biggest returns over time with the one that will be most likely to get the individual to start the journey.