Exercising with other people rather than on your own is linked to lower levels of stress and a better quality of life, say researchers, so you've got some good reasons to invite a few friends along to your next gym session.
A new study of 69 medical students showed working out alone meant participants put in more effort on average, but didn't experience improvement in overall outlook and stress levels.
According to the team from the University of New England in Australia, getting together with others for exercise could be one way of dealing with high-pressure, stressful environments – like studying for a medical degree, in this case.
"The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone," says lead researcher Dayna Yorks.
"The findings support the concept of a mental, physical and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians."
The 69 students could pick for themselves one of three groups: a fitness class group, a health enhancement group, or a control group that didn't get involved in any regular exercise beyond walking or biking as a way of getting around.
Those in the fitness class group took at least one CXWORX core fitness training class a week, while those in the health enhancement group did activities like weight lifting or running, either alone or with up to two other people.
Every four weeks the volunteers were asked to self-report on their perceived stress and mental, physical, and emotional quality of life. The study ran for 12 weeks in total.
At the end of all that hard work and sweating, the fitness class showed some big increases in their scores across the mental (12.6 percent increase), physical (24.8 percent increase), and emotional (26 percent increase) categories on average.
The fitness class group also reported a 26.2 percent drop in perceived stress levels.
There was no substantial change in these scores for the control group, while the health enhancement group only showed a difference in one area over the 12 weeks: an 11 percent increase in mental quality of life.
The study didn't look at actual improvements in physical fitness, and the researchers are keen to point out that they're not trying to play down the many benefits of regular solo exercise – but if you exercise in a group, there may be extra bonuses to your wellbeing.
It's possible that just the habit of socialising with other people, rather than the exercise itself, is causing these boosted scores, say the researchers. They also hypothesise that the up-tempo music and varied exercises typical in fitness classes are likely to make them more fun than solo training routines.
The team behind the study notes some limitations, like the relatively small sample size, but suggests scheduled group exercise activities could be helpful in environments like medical schools, where burnout and anxiety are common.
"Given this data on the positive impact group fitness can have, schools should consider offering group fitness opportunities," says Yorks.
For the rest of us it's maybe worth considering that fitness class we've always been meaning to sign up for – especially those of us that find it hard to get motivated to go to the gym on our own.
This isn't the first study to note the benefits of group exercise, but it's more evidence that having others around us can offer various extra boosts to a fitness regime.
"As such group exercise is a good match for people who are outgoing or looking to meet new people, who benefit from structure, who find solo exercise boring or who have difficulty maintaining motivation by themselves," Andreas Bergdahl from Concordia University in Canada, who wasn't involved in the study, told George Dvorsky at Gizmodo.
"In fact, peer support can be a great motivator, and can almost feel like group therapy."
The findings have been published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.