Exercise is widely known for improving physical health, as it reduces the risk of many diseases associated with mortality. It also improves mental health, as it has been shown to improve mood and even memory. However, the specific types of exercise that provide the greatest benefit to mental health have remained relatively unexplored until recently. A new study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association determined that group exercise has the most substantial positive impact on mental health when compared to other forms of exercise.
The head researcher on this study, Dr. Dayna Yorks, and her colleagues selected 69 medical students, a population typically plagued with high-stress levels and a self-reported low quality of life . The participants were given the choice to participant in either a group exercise program or an individual one over the course of twelve weeks, completing a survey once every four weeks to document their perceived stress levels and quality of life throughout their respective program. These responses were compared to those of a control group consisting of individuals who were abstaining from any form of vigorous exercise.
The individuals participating in group exercise were required to attend at least one 30-minute fitness class each week, which consisted of core and functional training exercises, while those participating in individual exercise were allowed to maintain an exercise regime of their choice. In general, those who worked out alone took double the amount of time to complete an exercise session.
Researchers found that group exercise participants displayed significant improvements in the quality of their lives, including a 12.6% increase in mental health and a 26% increase in emotional health. Respondents also reported a 26.2% decrease in perceived stress levels. To put this into perspective, individual exercise participants, who worked out for twice as long, only saw an 11% increase in mental health with no significant improvements seen in the other measures of life quality. Similarly, the control group saw no improvements in either their stress levels or quality of life.
So, what is it about group exercise that makes it so effective in improving mental health? Human beings are inherently social animals. The impacts of social isolation and loneliness on mental health and overall well-being are extremely detrimental, while creating social connections offers countless benefits.
Social connectedness alone enhances one’s sense of belonging, happiness, and confidence, so it’s really no surprise that it significantly improves overall mental health when combined with exercise.
There is strength in numbers. As stated by Dr. Yorks, “the communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone.”
These findings hold many applications for employee wellness. Employers with the desire to promote wellness in the workplace should consider integrating a social component into their initiatives, through group fitness classes, group seminars, or friendly competition. Regardless of the method, incorporating any type of collective aspect will likely elicit better results and better morale.