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Fitness Futures: is our obsession with health making us anti-social?

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

How we are running away from team sports and exercising for sanity.

We are getting fitter, healthier and working out more than ever. But team sports are less popular… are we becoming less sociable? Or have our social behaviours changed the way we exercise?

*This article was originally published in Pej Gruppen's Tid & Tendenser, 2017 with the title 'Fitness Futures: 'Me-work', not Teamwork'.

Sweat With Kayla, the phenomenally successful fitness app

My father, a wise and very youthful octogenarian, is a firm believer in the power of a ‘sociable skill hobby’. Pounding away on a spin bike or doing aerobics in a sweaty gym classroom has always slightly baffled him, as he’d rather be hiking with his children, swimming with his Monday swim group or tango dancing with my Mother. His disappointment at the conversion of half of his local leisure centre’s squash courts into spin studios is palpable. ‘People just seem to want to exercise on their own these days…”, he declared to me with malaise.

I began to think about how we are increasingly living very solo lives, and how right my Father is that it seems like fewer people, especially those of working age, actually participate in any kind of group sport. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends I have who are part of a sports team, or any kind of exercise community (not counting the numerous gym memberships among us). In Denmark: the land of activity clubs and hobby groups, the number increases, but it’s still just my two hands that I’m looking at.

Thanks to a global interest in healthy living, we are doing more exercise than ever before, which is a wonderful thing. Participation is on the rise amongst Gen X, Millennials and Boomers (who, it must be acknowledged, absolutely love fitness), and there are so many choices of it available that there really is something for everyone. But most of us are choosing to do it solo. Across the US and UK over the last 6 years, there has been a downturn in the number of people who take part in team sports, and an increase in people doing more individual styles of exercise, such as yoga, gym training and group fitness classes.

None of these choices require a partner, a team mindset or any kind of reliance on or responsibility for other people. What’s the link? Is our obsession with fitness making us less sociable? Or are we doing more exercise because we are less sociable? Are we even less sociable?

Exotic yoga holidays are increasingly popular as yoga grows in followers

Re-humanising ourselves

Every day, there are new reports published proving that our ever increasing levels of screen time and reliance on technology are having multiple adverse effects on sleep, concentration and even our ability to read emotions.

We’re evolving into creatures that live increasingly solo lives: more people are living alone and there are more jobs that enable a remote working style that means you can go all day without seeing or speaking to another soul. We are basically becoming less human.

Fortunately, many of us have realised this, and are stepping up our physical activity levels in a bid to balance the multiple distractions facing us every day. People of all ages are looking to improve their minds and their bodies, as we’ve finally started to collectively understand the importance of the relationship between our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s easy to see a greater emphasis on inward reflection and self-love: yoga has grown exponentially as an interest: in the US alone, $27 Billion is spent annually on yoga products (an 87% increase in the last 5 years), and mindfulness is at its peak. 2015 saw the meditation and mindfulness industry generate nearly $1 billion in the USA, according to IBISWorld. There are nearly 1000 mindfulness apps available, and top app Headspace has been downloaded more than 6 million times.

@yogagirl Rachel Brathen is a global Instagram yoga star

Solitude and sanity

So we need to de-stress. According to Mintel, one in four Britons say they go to a gym in order to relax or de-stress. ‘Fitness’ as a sport has seen the greatest rise in participation numbers of any of the sports out there. We have a need for alone time, and are therefore seeking out solitude: whether that’s mindful yoga solitude or the tension releasing solitude of an early morning run or gym class.

Psycle London spin studio CEO Rhian Stephenson set up her business based on this need: “So many of us spend our lives in this city being so stressed and up tight, rushing from work to bed to work again the next day. Doing one of our classes is a phenomenal stress-reliever.”

“I go to spinning classes because I need to release from work. My job is really hectic and sweating it out on a spin bike for an hour keeps me sane. I’m burning calories and restoring my sanity at the same time” agrees Gemma, 36, a fashion buyer based in London.

A need to belong

Sport and exercise undoubtedly has social benefits. It has been proven many times over that it’s good for our self-esteem and our confidence. But team sports have an edge, because of the sense of belonging that comes with playing sports as part of a group. It’s where many important social skills are learned, including acceptance of others, support of our peers, and the value of competition.

A spin class community

The International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity found that there are relationships between physical fitness and our mental state; the relationships built through exercise can satisfy our needs for belongingness and, as such, influence our psychological health.

However, most team sports are built around rivalry, whereas in a gym class or a yoga session there is no competition, except with yourself, if you choose it. So, as we’ve become more self-centred and inwardly focused, it makes sense that competitive sports have declined in popularity.

The desire to share interests

Sports like squash, badminton and tennis are not always the easiest way of getting into exercise - you need a court, and some instruction, and someone to play with… you really have to want to play that sport, and you have to want to find the people with shared interests, instead of trying to be invisible at the back of a gym class, getting it over and done with as fast as possible.

Men are statistically more likely to partake in exercise, and more likely to be involved in team and club sports. Pia, an anthropologist and researcher based in Copenhagen says that whilst she loves solo pursuits of yoga and swimming, her boyfriend is a competitive sports fan; “Henrik loves the winning and losing – I think boys are more competitive than girls. He also really enjoys the social aspect of tennis; they go for drinks after and meet up for coffees… it’s very friendly, and he arranges matches and games with people that way.”

Our world of commuter travel, remote working and virtual communities means that it’s easy for us to find people with shared interest and values around the world. But when it comes to finding people nearby who are into the same things as you, our growing disconnection with our local neighbourhoods and communities means it’s not as naturally easy as it once was.

The Olympic effect

What about the big sporting events that inspire us with world class athletes? It is often claimed that they stir up great feelings of exercise ambition, but the impact is actually rather varied. Research carried out after the 2012 Olympics determined that if you’re emotionally engaged with sport already - so either you play it, watch it or are part of a ‘sporting’ community - you’ll either attend or watch an event, and you’ll probably feel inspired to get moving yourself. This is likely due in part to the fact that you probably didn’t need much persuasion in the first place…

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that a 2009 Sport England study found that if you’re not emotionally engaged, then you won’t follow a big event, and there will be no motivation to get active yourself. This proved itself after London 2012, when only 15% of adults in the UK were inspired by the Olympics to play more sport.

On the flip side, however, the GB women’s hockey team stirred up some very strong emotions amongst followers of the 2016 Olympics, when it was clear how they placed the wellbeing of their team as a unit above their individual needs. They put themselves into a social media isolation, cutting themselves off from anyone who wasn’t in their ‘pack’, so as to concentrate on each other and the task at hand. To outsiders, it was nothing except admirable and inspiring that in such a hedonistic world, a group of people could be so dedicated to each other.

The social anxieties of exercising

Women in particular have a very emotional relationship with sport. They tend to feel greater reward from it once they have ‘got into’ it, and any emotional fears or body hang-ups diminish with time, once they have got into a routine.

Significantly fewer women than men are exercising regularly, and part of this problem lies in self-image. Sport England’s recent ‘This Girl Can’ campaign set out to get more women exercising by motivating them to feel more comfortable and at ease doing exercise, and not to be restricted by any social anxiety they have around the way they think they look.

The research that supported their work highlighted that women really seek to feel good about themselves through exercise. Their priorities are firmly focused in feeling like they are empowered; mentally and physically well; energised and on a path to progress and crucially, a part of something that rewards them, and that includes enjoying time with friends, both new and known.

Team training

Finding a buddy

For women especially, who can be more prone to a fear of going to something alone, having a buddy or exercise wing-man is a huge incentive for people trying a new activity. Both the US Physical Activity Council and Sport England have reported that anyone aspiring to start a new activity would be more motivated to do it if they had someone to participate with – or if a friend took them along.

Having it all: the social-fitness blend

We all have a need for human connection: it’s a part of human nature. Without a network or community, we break. For people living fast paced urban lives, they want to tick off multiple objectives in one big hit. Savvy entrepreneurs are focusing on this need, designing ‘must-do’ events that blend exercise and social opportunities.

Super-club The Ministry of Sound has transformed its alcohol vaults into a fitness studio that lives and breathes their ‘go hard or go home’ mantra. Offering a selection of intensive, professionally designed workouts in a darkened club environment with uplifting music, they focus on working together really hard as a training team while you’re there, but having fun at the same time - through the party atmosphere they have created.

The bar at Ministry of Sound's fitness studio

The presence of a real bar that actually serves alcohol (not just protein balls and green juices) underlines Ministry’s historic ‘be good to be bad’ values. It’s also completely in line with how people really live. The ‘debit/credit’ reality of life where you balance out a night’s indulgences with a hardcore workout is ever more present, and Ministry’s approach encourages the social side of fitness by aligning it with real world behaviours: one that revolves around a bar.

‘Saints & Sinners’ approaches the emphasis on balance from a different perspective. The London based events offer a 45-minute boxing and cardio class, followed by mindful Vinyasa yoga, polished off with a two-course brunch where you can choose from 'sinful' dishes, such as waffles with chocolate sauce, or the more 'saintly' raw quinoa salad. It’s an occasional weekend event, rather than a weekly class, and its high price and desirable location at an exclusive gym all add up to create a significant ‘destination’ factor (and brag-ability credentials).

Social competitiveness

There has been a huge focus on being ‘#fitnotthin’, and fashion media now (mostly) promote the powerful, rather than skinny human form. To have muscles and to be strong is highly desirable, and social media is consequently overflowing with fitness influencers and accounts of strong men and women who visualise the potential.

With the social media onslaught of perfect bodies comes the social status side to fitness.

No longer is it about which gym you’re a member of, but it’s now about whether you’ve ticked off a certain ‘hot-right-now’ class, or done yoga at the top of your city’s tallest building; or completed a triathlon… social media has brought about a whole new kind of social competition: ‘brag-ability’.

Insta-worthy health and fitness makes the you the object of a very self-gratifying centripetal force amongst a very modern, competitive community. As people push themselves harder and harder to do more testing and more difficult things, fitness brands are stepping up to provide the challenges.

Are you worthy of Gymbox's 'Flatline' class? Paramedics included and vomiting almost guaranteed

Last year, the Gymbox fitness chain created ‘Flatline’: a class that is widely believed to be the world’s most dangerous exercise class. A grueling circuits session that even the world circuits champion (yes, there is one) can’t complete: it is the ultimate in ‘extremeness’. Complete with ‘sick stations’ for emergency vomiting, paramedics on hand and a mandatory consent form you must sign to declare that you understand the risk of stroke and death, to name but a few of the potential side effects, this is the ultimate in brag-ability.

The fast home workout

A practical, functional approach to modern exercise is increasingly common. For busy people, it underpins the popularity of H.I.T classes, where you can achieve a full body workout in 20 minutes: perfect for busy people who want to get in and out without fuss.

A need for convenient and practical exercise means that many people choose to work out in the comfort of their own home. It makes fast workouts like the H.I.T session very do-able, particularly since the home workout has moved from the celebrity video or DVD option to YouTube channels and free fitness apps.

The virtual support group

The bikini body cult of Australian personal trainer turned online fitness idol Kayla Itsines and her app ‘Sweat with Kayla’ has been phenomenally successful. Her programme of intensive 30-second exercises has created legions of global fans who are looking for hardcore results.

Bloomberg quotes a figure from analytics company App Annie, that ‘Sweat With Kayla’ has generated more revenue than any fitness app this year, beating Nike+ (which is free, but an optional Fuel+ wristband is €200) and Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal (costing €50 a year for a premium account).

Despite her fans doing their exercises at home alone, there is a global community who post their pictures and support each other via social media. They are all following the same programme, with the same end goal: to feel amazing because they look great.

Sweat with Kayla followers show off their before and after pictures

The fan club

Joe Wicks, aka ‘The Body Coach’ is also an Instagram sensation, and also a personal trainer turned fitness hero. After using the platform to develop a cult following, the Brit’s first cookbook, “Lean In 15”, was the bestselling non-fiction book of 2015 in the UK (despite only being published on 28th December 2015).

Joe Wicks' Lean In 15 book has been a bestselling part of the home workout revolution

Like Kayla, it’s a solo pursuit to follow his programme, but the latest fitness plan that you’re following is a workplace talking point, and likely that you’re not the only person doing it. (Especially when you consider that every day, around 500 people sign up to Wicks’ 90-day body transformation plan.)

So perhaps the social side to health or fitness doesn’t have to be found in a club or a gym? Leanne, 24, a Manchester based Marketing assistant agrees: “there are loads of girls in my office who are following the latest fitness programme… and it’s nice to talk about how you’re finding it with someone else that you know is doing the same thing as you. We might not be working out together, but we’re ‘doing’ it together, which is just as good, really”.

Even if you’re sweating it out at home instead of the gym, shared fitness goals and exercise interests can bring a community of strangers together via progress selfies, and unite co-workers over the lunch table.

The team when you’re not a team

So, socialising and feeling part of a community is important, but it’s not necessarily about being part of a traditional team. Fashion buyer Gemma agrees: “there is kind of a team atmosphere to my gym classes. We’re all in there for the same reason – to get fit, and we know that. I wouldn’t go for drinks with them, but we recognise each other and say hi and make small talk about the class, which gives it a sort-of team atmosphere”.

The idea of a team or group mentality, despite not actually having to be in a team, is one that many fitness empires are building on. Spinning in particular has been at the core of it, and a cluster of high-end spin chains have sprouted up across the US and UK in the past few years. Psycle London is one of them. Designed to be a full body work-out on a bike (there’s that efficiency thing again), it aims to reach the parts that other spin classes don’t reach. This is not just through the routine, but through the atmosphere of the entire experience: it’s a dark room lit with pulsing disco lights, some very loud music and infectiously enthusiastic instructors.

Ministry of Sound

The intensive classes are designed to lift you, and your newly-found cycling buddies, into a state of club-like euphoria. Psycle London, along with Soul Cycle and BOOM Cycle is the US, have created a spinning revolution (no pun intended) that encourages people to join the party and release their tension by dancing, moving your body (not just furiously pedalling), whooping and singing along to the music. It really hooks people in, as well: to book onto a class is increasingly difficult.

Rhian Stephenson, the CEO of Psycle explains the addictiveness: “It’s not just a fitness class; it’s a community”. “We want to make people feel welcome, like they belong. The happier you are, the healthier you are – and the better your workout.” It makes perfect sense. Any coach would advocate sharing your goals with others, because it makes them ‘stickier’: you’ll be more likely to commit to them.

The power of the cult community

If you’ve never heard of CrossFit, it’s probably because you’ve never met anyone who does it. Powered very successfully by word of mouth, the first rule of CrossFit is to tell everyone you know about CrossFit: it harnesses the unrivalled power of social selling through recommendation.

CrossFit has attracted extremely loyal fans the world over with its combination of varied exercise, a community atmosphere, extreme self-development and a controllable competitive edge. It taps very neatly into the trend for greater functionality and tangible results from exercise.

It’s not quite a gym chain and not quite personal training. “It really is novel,” said Robert Moran, a lecturer at the New Zealand Unitec Institute of Technology in an interview with Bloomberg; “it’s a collection of components that we’ve seen in other places, put together in a unique way with this unique governance, wrapped up in this social glue.”

And it’s not just the people working out who are competing: the centres (or ‘boxes’) are too. They are not franchises, so each centre pays a fee to use the CrossFit name, creating a competitive market that has perfected the art of bringing in and keeping hold of new members.

CrossFit leverages the power of a competitive community

The community aspect amongst users is paramount to that. On Memorial Day in the USA, CrossFit boxes get together to barbecue and complete a workout in honour of a US SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2005: a mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another mile run. The barbeques work as a marketing tactic to encourage people to be a part of their community. People will keep coming back if they feel they are part of a group – especially one where they are in control of their involvement level.

Yuri Feito teaches exercise science at Kennesaw State University and studies CrossFit. In an interview with Bloomberg, he argued that the CrossFit approach has no equal in terms of getting people to stick around. “Spinning, Zumba, Insanity, P90X—none of these programmes have been able to do, at least from an adherence standpoint, what CrossFit does.” Feito has published research into why CrossFit generates so much loyalty, and found that men like the competition, women like the weight reduction, and everyone likes the camaraderie. “People call it a cult,” he says, “but it’s creating a community, and people adhere to that.”

Thriving off others’ energy

Feito believes that the community aspect of CrossFit can be a powerful motivator, adding a sense of competition, togetherness and encouragement, which along with a shared sense of struggle, because participants are doing the same exercises at the same time.

Whilst it’s entirely an individual choice whether you choose to participate in the group spirit and team whooping in these centres and classes, it’s guaranteed that the more you do engage, the more likely it is that you’ll get something out of it: Rhian Stephenson believes that people should leave their self-consciousness at the studio door and join the ‘pack’.

“Nobody is going to be looking at you, thinking ‘what on earth is that person doing?’ You’re in a pack. It’s dark, you get caught up in the energy, you get on the beat and you stop thinking. It’s like a moving meditation; it takes you out of your head and into the music.”

The cool down…

Upon reflection, it doesn’t seem that we have become less sociable because of a change in our approach to fitness, but more that our social gratification is found through a quietly acknowledged pack mentality. In our commitment phobic world, it’s far more attractive to be able to absorb the benefits of a team environment without actually having to sign on the dotted line as a committed member.

This article originally appeared in Pej Gruppen's Tid & Tendenser, 2017

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