GROUP EXERCISE: WHY IT’S BEST FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
We are all told on a regular basis to engage in moderate exercise. Walking, running, swimming, yoga… all of these exercises are aimed at improving our physical health. Reduced rates of heat disease, diabetes etc.. the benefits of regular exercise are numerous. Yet, which of these exercises focus on our mental health? Sure, most exercise involves the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones such as endorphins, but is there more to exercise than the pure bio-chemical effects? Is there something to be said for group exercise?
I have been asking myself this question since teaching yoga on a regular basis. What makes a group of people come together and practice? My classes have grown and there is a level of commitment amongst the students. The actual experience seems to be greater than the exercise itself. When I recently thanked one of my colleagues for her regular attendance, she remarked:
‘We all love it!’
My theory was that the experience of people actually doing something together outside the work place was having some positive effect.
In the Buddhist world, they call this the ‘sangha’ or coming together in a community. The collective sharing of our consciousness is a means by which people can connect on a different level. That connection doesn’t need to be verbal; the energetic effect of people coming together and practising can be equally powerful.
To this extent, I was delighted to learn that my suspicions were confirmed. In a recent 4 year study involving 1.2 million people published by the Lancet Psychiatry, those who participated in group sports or fitness classes had that highest number of ‘good’ mental health days. Group exercise, it seems, is the real deal.
The results really aren’t surprising if you look at what’s going on in the brain when we connect with other people – oxytocin is released, which is a ‘feel-good’ hormone. If, as Yuval Noah Harari writes, we are nothing but a group of biochemicals intricately arranged together in the form we know as the ‘body’, then any such exercises which induce a higher bodily response are bound to have a positive effect.
That’s not to say that only doing some exercise such as walking or running has no benefits: the opposite. Even those participants who did walking or household chores achieved some benefit with a 11.8% reduction for those who engaged in household activities or cleaning. I think there’s something to be said about creating a clean space (another topic altogether). But group exercise, it seems, tops the list of the most beneficial.
The lesson learnt therefore is that: if you want to really ‘optimise’ your mental health, you need to get out and go to a group exercise class. It’s the social interaction that counts at the end of the day, whatever form it takes. As Anne Malone likes to say at her wonderful ‘Oasis of Sound‘ sound healing experiences, it’s all about coming ‘home’.
How about trying out one of my group yoga classes every week? Now that’s a bit cheeky isn’t it?