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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)
A few months ago, I wrote about some research showing that people in “spinning” classes tended to exercise wayyy harder than if they’d just hopped on an exercise bike by themselves. In fact, many spinners were reaching intensities higher than the “maximum” predicted by researchers! With that in mind, I was interested to see a recent study in Biology Letters from researchers at Oxford University about the chemical effects of group workouts. As a BBC report put it:
Exercising together appears to increase the level of the feel-good endorphin hormones naturally released during physical exertion, a study suggests. A team from Oxford University carried out tests on 12 rowers after a vigorous workout in a virtual boat. Those who trained alone withstood less pain – a key measure of endorphins – than those who exercised together.
It’s worth noting that they didn’t simply measure rowing performance, where the motivational effects of being in a group might have helped the subjects push harder. They actually subjected them to a torture test: after the rowing, they inflated a blood-pressure sleeve around the subjects’ arms to cut off circulation, and timed how long they could withstand the pain. (Resistance to pain is a proxy for endorphin production.) Sure enough, the solo exercisers couldn’t last as long as the group exercisers, indicating that there was something going on inside the body during the group workout.
The researchers speculate that this mechanism may be the key to other social activities (“such as laughter, music-making and dancing”). More importantly, from our point of view, it’s good to have a reason to seek out training partners!