Understanding the ‘cult’ of group fitness
There was a time when the word ‘cult’ was only used to refer to obscure religious sects. But lately the cult of fitness fanaticism is springing up everywhere.
“Grueling”; “transformative”; “cleansing”; and “intense” – these are some of the words used to describe intense group exercise classes like CrossFit, Bikram Yoga and F45. And these punishing sessions tend to recruit only devoutest attendees who quickly become obsessed with their big results.
But there may be other, less tangible motives influencing attendance at extreme exercise classes. A recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology explored the sense of community offered by a CrossFit gym compared with a traditional gym.
CrossFit gym members reported significantly higher levels of social capital: bridging (social networking) and bonding (opportunities for deeper friendship development). The study also found positive correlations between gym attendance and measures of social capital and community belongingness.
Other research has suggested that a lack of social support in standard gyms is linked to their dropout rates. Others have proposed that those who feel out of control in their regular life are attracted to high intensity exercise systems because it makes them feel empowered.
For sports and exercise psychologist Michael Inglis the psychosocial aspect of gym membership is undeniably significant. Initially, Inglis says, people join gyms for their health, but other factors quickly become important.
“There’s often a group mentality of getting fitter or stronger and you get inspired and pulled along by others,” say Inglis. “Humans are highly social beings. We love feeling like we belong, and gyms are getting better at building a sense of community.”
But what is it about punishing group exercise programs that are so appealing?
The F45 addict
It’s thought that groups of people who undertake strenuous physical challenges together come out inextricably connected.
For Steven Scott, the intense exercise environment of F45 was unlike anything he’d tried before. “I’ve been going to the gym since I was in my 20s, but as I’ve gotten older – I’m now in my 40s – staying in shape has been harder because of work commitments, energy levels and motivation,” Scott says.
After hearing about F45, and being apprehensive about its fast and furious approach, Scott decided to try it. “I spent a long time researching F45,” he explains. “The format of doing lots of different exercises in a short space of time is quite intimidating and I knew lots of fit people attended.”
Scott’s plan was to attend three times a week but after his first (“brutal”) session, another member encouraged him to come back the next day. “For some reason that really stuck with me and I went back immediately. I even looked forward to it.”
Scott now attends six days a week, often during his lunch break, and gets restless if he can’t attend. “Today I forgot to bring my shoes and I’m devastated!” he says.
For Scott, the variety, intensity and challenge of F45 are deeply motivating and exhilarating. “When you come out of these classes you are pouring with sweat,” he says. “You feel terrible at the time, but an hour later you get that endorphin rush.”
Sharing the experience with others in the group has also meant Scott feels a strong sense of connection. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly social person at the gym,” he says. “The group itself is young and fit and I feel like the old fat dude, but I still feel welcome.”
But is the pain really worth the gain? “Often you’re in agony and you look around the class thinking that you can’t handle anymore and someone gives you a quick smile and it motivates you to keep going,” Scott says. “It’s like we’ve done this horrible thing together and survived.”
The CrossFit devotee
“I’ve been doing CrossFit for over three years,” says Emily Cavell. “When I did a couple of trial classes at CrossFit, the coaches immediately introduced themselves to me, followed by the clients who were all incredibly welcoming.”
Cavell, who had never lifted weights before, initially felt nervous and intimidated.
“The more I attended, the more encouragement I received from everyone, and I’d watch as people cheered each other, especially when the workouts increased in difficulty,” she admits.
For Cavell, it’s the sense of community and connectedness that keeps her going back.
“People come to CrossFit to get fit and healthy,” she says, “but they stay because of the people.”
The RPM trainer
Shannon Cleary has been teaching group exercise classes for 25 years. “I’ve been through all the different eras and genres,” she says.
But while fitness fads will come and go, Cleary says the thing that ultimately keeps people attending is simple: “It’s the group activity.”
“You feel this sense of connection that you belong to a team. You meet up every week for a class and it’s very social.”
Cleary’s classes are regularly packed, and her Sunday morning RPM class has people nabbing bikes up to an hour before the class starts.
“There’s funny behavior that goes on in group fitness classes,” she laughs. “People are very particular about the bike they use, and some text others who are already there and ask them to save a bike. They don’t want to miss out and so they have this sense of anxiety and anticipation.”
Cleary has seen friendships develop within her classes and says human connection is the key.
“It’s like fitness becomes the second priority,” she says. “There’s a human connection and social experience. It’s a bonus that you get fit at the same time. Oh, and with a stationary bikes, there’s no chance you can get hit by a bus!”
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website