It’s 6:30 on the chilly morning at Tower 26, a lifeguard station on a serene stretch of beach between Santa Monica and Venice, Calif. The tourists continue to be asleep; the Ferris wheel, quiet and dark. For now, the beach belongs to the LA Tri Club. 

There are more than 40 of them, women and men of all ages, eyeing the slate-gray ocean. It looks cold, but the group is undeterred. They don swim caps and goggles, zip up wetsuits, and provide one another encouraging slaps on the back. 

Then they plunge into the Pacific. 

For the next 75 minutes, they navigate surf, crest big waves, and exercise staying on course to a distant buoy; they swim backwards and forwards, over and over again. They keep an eye out for each other, cheer each other on, and talk trash occasionally. It’s a tough workout, however they all get through it, finishing the session energized and alive. 

“The very first time I swam in the ocean I was a bit nervous,” says club md Deb Carabet. “But the other members taught me not to panic. They held me as we went through the surf.” 

Without the group, she says, she never would have tried ocean swimming, much less her most recent adventure — a half-Ironman race earlier this July that included greater than a mile of open-water swimming. 

For many people, fitness is a solitary pursuit: Go to the gym, notch a workout, start your day. Many fitness programs and gyms focus on this trend, prioritizing convenience over conviviality within their services and classes. 

But, like those who work in the LA Tri Club’s Ocean Swim class, many fitness-minded people — as well as the health clubs and specialty studios they frequent — are discovering the value of working out with a group of like-minded friends, acquaintances, coaches, and trainers. 

Ask the things they get out of it and you’ll hear reports of camaraderie, motivation, and friendly competition, all of which lead, they say, to better performance and greater fitness —  and, perhaps most important, more enjoyment. 

Simply put, individuals who are active in fitness communities are finding they can get more done, reach goals faster, and blast through plateaus faster than they might on their own. 

Team Effort

Nearly a century ago, researchers discovered that people in groups tend to work harder than when they’re working alone, a dynamic known as the Köhler effect. When a team’s performance is determined by that of its weakest link — a mountain-climbing expedition in which all members are tethered together, for instance — the weaker member performs significantly better compared with his or her best solo efforts. 

If you pick out stronger/faster/fitter students in a fitness class and then try to outpace them at pushups, squats, or laps around the gym — regardless of whether they know you’ve selected them as the “rabbits” to chase — you’ll often perform better. That’s the Köhler effect at the office. It happens unconsciously whenever people exercise together.

“I’ve been on teams my whole life,” says David Freeman, OPEX, CCP, NASM-PES, national manager for a lifetime Time’s Alpha program, which focuses on Olympic lifting and strength training inside a group setting. A pushup is a pushup — but when you work out inside a group, he says, “it gives you a feeling of greater purpose.” 

A fitness community amps up performance while infusing the practice with something which can be hard to find on your own: meaning. 

Social Animals

One of the biggest benefits of a fitness community is appropriate there in the word community. We're social animals, and interacting with others is good for us. Whether we’re getting together with family for dinner, friends for golf, or acquaintances for a martial-arts class, research demonstrates that groups can benefit us. 

A 2010 report within the Journal of Health and Social Behavior noted that “social relationships — both quantity and quality — affect mental health, health behavior, health, and mortality risk.” Individuals with more and better social ties, researchers found, demonstrated better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and less susceptibility to cancer; individuals with fewer and lower-quality social contacts exhibited more inflammation and poorer immune function. 

For many people, fitness com­munities play a role usually filled by traditional social networks — neighbors, religious groups, extended families — which have become less integral to our time-crunched, digitally driven lives. 

“Most of us lead a solitary existence,” says Andrea Jones, cofounder of boutique fitness clubs in Minnesota and Colorado. “More and more people work from home, or maybe at a coffee shop on a laptop, so they spend much of the day by themselves.” 

As a result, fitness communities have all the more value, she explains. “Buying one hour when you can feel that individuals are supporting you, where you don’t need to do it all yourself.” 

Add vigorous movement to the equation, and you have a beneficial, self-reinforcing cycle. 

“Play fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community,” writes National Institute for Play founder Stuart Brown in the book, Play: How It Shapes the mind, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. 

Fitness communities thus produce a virtuous circle: They support and enhance health, while health-building movement enhances the sense of community. 

Recreational sports teams and clubs have been around for decades, but the boom in fitness communities within gyms has its own roots in group fitness. Organized exercise classes showed gym-goers the health club could be their so-called third place, after home and work. 

Increasingly, they’re seeking a far more personalized, community feel to their training, programs in which they’re not only clients but real individuals with names and lives and interests and feelings. Health clubs have taken up the challenge of catering to this growing, social clientele. 

Group fitness classes and training programs, for example Life Time’s Alpha and GTX, are increasingly popular. In addition to getting fit, people begin using these sessions to build friendships and also to network. Social-media connections help support in-person relationships, says Freeman. And races, weightlifting competitions, coffee gatherings, potlucks, and other real-life outings naturally arise consequently. 

Suddenly, a gym becomes more than just a gym. It’s a place you can turn to for improving your physical fitness as well as cultivating a sense of connection and belonging.

Group-Mind Motivation 

Solitary workouts can be effective and enjoyable. But coaches, trainers, along with other experts have found that some people have better experiences and get better outcomes when they don’t walk the path to fitness alone. 

Scientists have attempted to quantify and qualify these successes, but study results happen to be mixed and dependent on how big the group and behavior being tested. (And if you’ve participated in or even observed the burgeoning group fitness trend at your own gym or fitness center, you’ve likely noticed that the kinds of classes offered, the goals being pursued, and also the sizes of the groups are highly variable.)

But gyms and gym-goers don’t seem to need convincing that working out as part of a group is worthwhile. Anecdotally, say Freeman and other trainers, people seem to perform better when someone is watching them: Coaching, cueing, and spotting provide practical, often personalized, feedback. 

Moreover, there’s an apparent benefit to feeling accountable to a larger group. This is illustrated, in part, by colloquial language that describes fitness communities as families and teams by which people find encouragement, physically and emotionally.     

By virtue of the size and diversity, fitness communities can offer a wide variety of feedback and support — something can’t always get when working solo, or perhaps with a single trainer or workout buddy. 

“Sometimes you'll need a motivator,” says Freeman, a drill-sergeant type who will not take no for an answer. 

“Other times you need a nurturer,” an encouraging, helpful teammate or coach who talks you through rough patches. “As a single coach, I can’t be everything to everybody,” he admits. “That’s where the community takes over.” 

In a group, inspiration may come from almost anywhere. Many mentors — peers, advanced students, teachers, and team leaders — are available to provide the right coaching cues that will help you master an exercise; the right phrase to help you persevere though a difficult workout; or even the right strategy to get you on track to your next goal. 

“Practically from birth, we’re searching for role models,” says Freeman. “In middle school, you look up to the high schoolers; in senior high school, you look up to the college kids. Whenever you’re in a pivot point — trying to get better or make a change — there’s nothing more motivating than having someone around who says, ‘I’ll go with you.’” 

True  Competition

Competition is strong medicine: It can discourage or motivate, beat you down or lift you up. 

Some groups embrace fitness as a contest. Online or in the club, there are often prominent lists showing who lifts probably the most, runs the fastest, and jumps the highest. 

“In some communities it’s all about the leaderboard,” says Jones. If you’re this is not on it, you want to be, and if you are, you want to climb to the top. 

 This emphasis on the fitness hierarchy inside a group may fire many people up — but it can drive others away. 

Still, healthy competition might be the special sauce that lends flavor to a fitness community. And it doesn’t need to take the form of a whiteboard listing everybody’s top lifts. Simply exercising alongside others can be enough to light an aggressive fire. 

“Part of the reason I really like weekly rides with the tri club is the fact that I can keep an eye on the other athletes,” says Joey Doran, 36, an LA Tri Club member and frequent podium finisher. 

By trying their finest in group workouts with closely matched people of similar fitness levels, Doran and his fellow athletes push one another to greater fitness and gratifaction; no accolade, external recognition, or perhaps explicit acknowledgment of their rivalry is required. 

Such enjoyable-but-high-stakes workouts are a prime example of what David Light Shields, PhD, a sports psychologist and professor of behavioral science specializing in athletics at St. Louis Community College, calls “true competition.” This involves mutually respectful individuals striving to beat their opponents and bring the best in one another, says Shields, author of True Competition. Focus and playfulness are balanced. Positive emotions prevail. 

Competition isn’t always so rosy, of course (see “3 Solutions for Overcoming Group Pitfalls,” below), however in a supportive fitness community, it may become the rule rather than the exception. 

“A competitive environment puts people into an aspirational mindset,” says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Damon Centola, PhD, author of How Behavior Spreads. 

His study of online health networks discovered that members who interacted within competitive social settings exercised more to maintain the highest performers; members who interacted in supportive social settings were influenced by the poor performers and went to the gym less often. 

Centola’s research suggests that, compared with other exercise incentives — for example peer support or
monetary incentives — friendly competition is by far the most effective way to motivate healthy behavior change.

Two years back, Deb Cabaret’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When word got to members of the LA Tri Club, she says, “40 people came out to do a race benefitting cancer research. They rallied around him.” 

Over time, she says, club members happen to be injured and sick,  and members consistently turned up to support them. Members have dated, married, coupled with kids. 

“It’s a real community,” says Carabet. “And it’s lovely.”

3 Solutions for Overcoming Group Pitfalls

Fitness groups often provide support, accountability, inspiration, and human connection. But like any group endeavor, such communities also provide their downsides. Our experts share their top three concerns, plus strategies to help you steer clear of trouble.

Pitfall No. 1: Lack of perspective

There's a difference between a demanding-but-rewarding hobby along with a damaging, obsessive pursuit. It can be hard to recognize when you've crossed the road, especially because exercise is considered a healthy activity.

Solution: Pay attention to the rest of your life

Is your job suffering? How about your relationships? Do you feel less confident and less energetic than you did before? If you answer yes to any of these questions, says LA Tri Club md Deb Carabet, you might want to take a critical look at your fitness practice and possibly talk to someone about pulling back or reframing your routine. (She notes that your coach or fellow exercisers might not be qualified to recognize such problems.)

Pitfall No. 2: Competition that turns ugly

Friendly competition can sometimes become twisted, leading to hurt feelings and lasting resentments. Sports psychologist David Light Shields, PhD, calls this “decompetition” – a contest or rivalry in which competitors approach a friendly foot race or lifting contest as a war to be won. Opponents become enemies and the prospect of losing becomes an existential threat. Decompetition can dampen enjoyment of the game or activity, notes Shields, and ultimately lead to quitting what was once a rewarding and healthy pursuit.

Solution: Reconnect for your “why”

One of the benefits of belonging to an exercise community is the sense of purpose which comes from being part of something larger than yourself, says Life Time's national Alpha manager, David Freeman. Take time to verbalize why you work out, why you are a part of this group, and just what you get out of it. Try journaling or speaking with your coach or a workout buddy. Odds are, you're not there to wage an imaginary war upon your friends. Remembering why you do what you do will refocus your time and efforts.

Pitfall No. 3: Burnout and injury

Being a part of a group has been shown to improve performance and accountability, helping you push harder. Unfortunately, this may not line up with your level of fitness level or the circumstances of your life. Pushing too hard in a workout could lead to unnecessary soreness. Outside of the gym, a new baby or a heavy workload might compromise sleep and nutrition. Without rest and recovery, the workouts set you up for injury, loss of energy, and diminished interest in exercise.

Solution: Know yourself – and make sure you're joining the right group

Follow your intuition and focus on physical, mental, and emotional markers. Should you experience burnout or injury, speak to your coach about making adjustments to your workouts and possibly taking time off to recuperate. Your area will encourage your modifications, and when you choose to take a break, it'll always be there for you when you're ready and feeling well.

It may also be worth considering whether your fitness group is still the right place for you: Like several relationships, community ties sometimes fray. There isn't any shame in seeking out a brand new group that suits your goals and preferences.

At their finest, says Freeman, fitness communities aren't even about physical accomplishments: “We're exist for others be the best version of who they really are. And we want our members to pass that on to everyone around them – to assist others be No. One in their daily walk.”