According to Balearic President Francina Armengol’s latest decree, gyms are again closed. I can understand why gym owners and staff are frustrated, but clients appear just as miffed. They rightly argue that exercise helps protect against the more severe symptoms of COVID-19. But closing gyms isn’t stopping us from exercising. Armengol could reasonably say that we’re still allowed outdoors to run, cycle and (if you’re very brave) swim. Any of those activities would strengthen our lungs and immune system. We can get all the exercise our body needs on our own. The problem is that those activities are, by and large, solitary. It’s not that we can’t exercise without a gym. It’s that, as a social species, we probably won’t.
Motivation alone isn’t enough.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed 2 million people. Surely knowing that exercise protects us would be enough to motivate us, and prevent us from becoming another sad statistic. But according to a study on motivation published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, protective motivation does little to get us moving on its own.
Beyond motivation, most of us rely on a social push to keep us active. A 2018 study by the University of Toronto compared students who took part in team sports and informal fitness groups (such as yoga classes or running groups) and those who exercised alone. They found that students exercising in groups were more physically active, doing nearly twice as much activity as those who exercised alone.
Why do we find it so much easier to exercise in a group?
As a social species, we’ll go along with the crowd even when we think they’re mad. In the years shortly after the Second World War, many people wanted to understand how so many Germans had conformed to the Nazi’s and their horrific genocide of European Jews. When Hitler was at the height of power, the Polish-American psychologist, Solomon Asch, studied the impact of propaganda and indoctrination of the regime. Later, in the 1950s, Asch devised a series of experiments that demonstrated the effects of social pressure on conformity. He asked, ‘Just how far will people go to conform with others’? Participants in Asch’s experiments conformed to a group’s opinion a third of the time, even when it was evident that the other group members- who secretly part of the experiment- were wrong.
According to Asch, we conform because we want to fit in with the group or because we believe that the group is, in some unbeknownst way, better informed than we are. We see this behaviour in the gym. Even when exercise looks pointless, exhausting, or even dangerous, we still conform- not because we know that exercise is good for our health, but just to fit in.
Does that make us fickle? Hardly. According to evolutionary psychologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky, even a chimp ‘is more likely to copy an action if he sees three other individuals do it once each than if one other individual does it three times.’ We’re just another primate hardwired to conform through evolution.
Conformity isn’t necessarily conscious, either. In an experiment conducted by Professor Jens Kraus and Dr John Dyer of Leeds University, subjects were asked to walk a random path in a large hall. Unbeknownst to the majority of the group, a few of the walkers were ‘in’ on the experiment and walked a path chosen by the researchers. Despite no talking or gestures allowed within the group, the ignorant subjects started following the directed walkers. After interviewing participants, Klaus noted that ‘participants didn’t even realize they were being led’.
Whether in a crowd or in the gym, we instinctively follow the herd. It’s no surprise; herding behaviour is an evolutionary tool, ensuring that animals avoid threats as a group, and stay together for reproduction. It’s not something we do consciously. A sheep blindly follows its flock simply because that’s where the herd is going. And when working with a group, we adopt behaviours based on the same mammalian emotions, rather than on our rational choices.
When we’re in a group, and the group looks at something, our gaze automatically follows. Like herd mentality, ‘gaze following’ is another behavioural response hardwired into our DNA. We’re no different to birds on a wire or meerkats in the savannah; when one looks, we all look. But thanks to gaze following, we’re more likely to pay attention to a coach in a group class than if we’re alone watching a guided tutorial on YouTube. And a directed gaze brings directed attention, helping us follow tutorials and learn new skills.
As a social species, we’re used to competing for food, space, and partners. For millennia, beating our peers was a question of life or death. As a result, we’re hardwired to compete over pretty much anything, including exercise. A paper by sports psychologists Franken and Brown states that ‘competition motivates participants to put forth greater effort resulting in higher levels of performance.’ We willingly expend more energy in a group because we are hardwired to ensure that we don’t fall further down the social hierarchy.
And finally, studies have found that exercising in a group releases more endorphins than exercising alone. Why? Because chasing prey in packs was more effective than hunting game on our own, and escaping predators as a team gave us a better chance of survival. We evolved to reward physical activity with neurochemicals like endorphin, but evolution has rewarded social exertion over solitary exertion as that is what helped us succeed as a species.
So if Armengol and co. expects us to stay fit and healthy, then centres that facilitate social exercise need to remain open. Expecting us to start exercising alone is like expecting us to talk to ourselves.
We can do it, but as a social species, it’s just not quite as stimulating or rewarding as doing it with a group, so we probably won’t.