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Exercising as part of a group brings bigger benefits

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Humans are built to move, but in today’s world, where virtually everything you need is available at the touch of a button, there’s often little motivation to do so. Even the health conscious and fitness focused can struggle to find the drive to exercise from time to time, especially if they’re going solo.

If that feeling’s familiar to you, consider group exercise. Not only will working out with others boost your motivation, it can also bring numerous other benefits.

Getting social
Our social engagement system is regulated in part by the ventral vagal complex – the branch of the vagus nerve that integrates social behaviors and cues into the vagus’ control over the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system.

This self-soothing nervous system helps stimulate the production of oxytocin (the ‘love molecule’) to promote bonding, along with feelings of safety, happiness and joy, and it’s largely influenced by how much ease you feel inwardly and with those around you.

Humans are a social species and rely on relationships with others and the presence and safety of their “tribe” to feel relaxed. So, when it comes to exercise, taking part in restorative activities such as gentle yoga in a group setting, where the focus is on a sense of safety and belonging, can have both physical and emotional benefits.1 A workout does not need to be hard and fast to get rewards.

Satisfying needs
We all have basic needs that, when not satisfied, can leave us feeling fearful, anxious or depressed. Movement with others can help meet these needs in several ways.

Physiological needs. These are biological requirements for human survival and optimal function: air, food, drink, movement, shelter, clothing, warmth, sex and sleep. Until these basic needs are met, all other needs become secondary.

Movement is what allows us to be able to satisfy our own needs, but we rely on others, too, whether it’s from the necessity of limited mobility or simply that we have evolved to help each other and cannot do it all alone. Being in relation with others can be crucial for recognizing how others can physically support us in this very basic need.

Safety needs. The ability to settle, self-soothe and relax is crucial to wellbeing and health; it reduces inflammation and allows healing mechanisms to work with the calming, parasympathetic nervous system.

Group exercise offers feelings of safety as our nervous system registers that we have personal capacity and agency for free movement and strength – highly necessary for self-protection and the basic ability to move away from what we perceive as threatening and toward what we view as safe.

Love and belonging needs. After physiological and safety needs have been fulfilled, the third level of human need is social and involves feelings of belonging. The need for interpersonal relationships motivates behavior, gesture and movement. Through activities, play, dance and physicality with others, we can play out friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love.

Only about 30 to 40 percent of our inter-relating is with language, and we need to explore the other 60 to 70 percent in a variety of physical ways. Group exercise can also offer psychological support to stick with the activity, even when it seems difficult or tedious.

In fact, one study found that the more positive social engagements people had when doing an activity, the more enjoyment they had.2 And the more you enjoy something, the more likely you are to keep doing it.

The importance of play
The most beneficial activities are those that make you laugh or feel joy.

Laughter is physically releasing; it relaxes the muscles and changes your breath, sending waves of feel-good chemicals such as beta-endorphins through your whole system. By contrast, feeling stressed or anxious encourages tightness and tension in the body.

Movement coach and author Daryl Edwards has developed a method of movement called Primal Play to inspire people to make physical activity fun while getting healthier, fitter and stronger.

“Primal people danced, celebrated, competed, hunted, walked, dealt with nature – and played,” he says. “Across cultures and species, play appears to be a common experience innate to physical and mental development.”

Playing in a group releases twice as many feel-good and pain-relieving endorphins as playing on your own, meaning people can keep moving for longer. More dopamine is released, too; this “hit of happiness” is a reward for anything that promotes our survival.3

On the other hand, play deprivation is associated with anxiety and mental health problems in both children and adults.

Group support
Liz Oppedijk, co-founder and director of the social enterprise Accessible Chair Yoga, specializes in chair yoga and running classes that are fully inclusive, welcoming those with (and without) physical or mental challenges, where the chair takes the place of the mat and everyone is on an equal playing field.

People with a wide range of abilities attend, ranging from 35 to 95 years old. This has led to a two-month trial in one nursing home and a six-month feasibility study in five others, which have shown that weekly chair yoga sessions in a group provide mental, physical, social and mindfulness benefits as well as tackling age bias and social isolation.

Liz noticed what much research has documented: that many people find it difficult to exercise on their own. It can take tremendous self-discipline to exercise alone regularly, especially with the extra challenge of physical mobility issues from conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke, cancer and heart problems.

Group exercise helps provide the motivation to keep moving and the chance to learn from others, modeling the teacher and other students to see what works (and doesn’t work) for them. “Groupwork offers the opportunity for social contact and building a sense of community. Many people feel isolated or lonely. . . and it’s a joy to see my students interacting, chatting and bantering with each other,” says Liz.

The initial study has moved toward a formal academic study in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, to be published this year, measuring how chair yoga in nursing home residents affects mood, falls, balance confidence, cognitive impairment, social isolation and overall health. The initial results are very positive, with participants commenting on how much they enjoy practicing in a group and feel more included in the community.

Modifying movements for different abilities
On the following pages, you’ll see how common yoga and Pilates movements can be varied to include everyone within a group, recognizing individual needs that can vary day to day, whatever your age. This is not about one modification being ‘better’ than another, but rather finding ways people can exercise together.

Spine undulations
These movements follow the natural rhythm of the breath – rounding the back as the lungs empty on the exhale and arching as they fill on the inhale – to bring ease and space in the spine. They can be done on all fours in what is commonly known as a “cat-cow” movement, but they also work well seated on a chair.

Downward-facing dog variations
This is a wonderful
pose for finding length in the front spine, but it can be difficult on the wrists and shoulders for many. Using a wall so that you don’t have to push the weight of your body up from the ground can help, and the angle can be varied so the hands are placed higher up the wall the more rounding of the upper back is present.

Matsyendrasana (sage twist pose) variations
This standing twist encourages length and release up through the spine, while opening across the chest. The standing balance can encourage deep focus on the breath. Variations with the lifted foot on a chair offer more support, and bringing the hands to a wall can be great for everyone as it offers resistance as well as enabling you to hold the pose for longer and to feel the opening of the lift and turn.

Prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend) variation
Forward folding with a wide stride can wake up the insteps and inner legs, which are so important for how we stand up from the ground. Using a chair to support strength through the legs means less strain on the lower back, allowing focus to be on the outside edges of the feet. Place them in parallel at whatever width is comfortable while lifting and spreading the toes.

Balasana (child’s pose) variations
Child’s pose can be a challenge for those with knee or hip issues, but there are many ways to replicate this nurturing fetal position. On a chair, this can be with your chest dropped between your legs or higher up with your elbows on your knees. Another variation is to sit upright on the floor with your arms around your knees. If you choose to lie on the ground, you can add a bolster under your head and torso to help drop your weight back toward your tailbone. For those with less range of motion in the knees, try raising your hips while supporting your head.

Savasana (corpse pose) variations
Within yoga, the final relaxation is key to allowing the practice you’ve just done to be integrated into the body and mind. For some, lying directly on the ground is uncomfortable for the lower back. Placing a bolster under your knees can help, or try raising your legs up on a chair to further support the lower back. For those who cannot get down to the ground, a seated meditation on a chair is a great alternative.

1 Psychooncology, 2009; 18: 360-8
2 J Aging Phys Act, 2019: 1-7
3 Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2006; 30: 173-87

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