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Group exercise: The silver bullet for exercise motivation?

10 July 2024
Exercise motivation: ‘who’ matters more than ‘how’ or ‘why’
Exercise is important for a longer, healthier life, but motivation often gets in the way. Science suggests finding a supportive exercise community can spark lasting enthusiasm.

Exercise is crucial for preserving mobility and wellbeing in later life, yet fewer than 35 percent of Australians over 65 achieve sufficient weekly exercise. If you’re over 65 and struggling for motivation, new science suggests that social exercise could be the spark you’re looking for.  

New science could reveal the key to exercise motivation in later life

A large-scale study seeking to understand which strategies best motivate older adults to exercise has demonstrated that a socially-connected approach markedly improves long-term exercise engagement, whereas a traditional self-motivated approach has – perhaps unsurprisingly – minimal benefit.

The study recruited over 300 people aged 70+ who were not meeting national physical activity guidelines and randomly split them into two main groups, each receiving a different motivational approach. The researchers then checked-in across the year to see which approach resulted in the highest activity levels.

Theintrapersonalgroup used traditional self-motivation strategies like goal-setting, planning and self-tracking similar to the way exercise might be prescribed in the GP office. Conversely, theinterpersonal’ (socially-connected) group discussed exercise topics in a group forum, incorporating peer-to-peer sharing of motivations, strategies, and knowledge.

In general, exercise is rarely prescribed in the GP office, but when it is, this is usually how: ie. independent prescription, SMART goals, weight tracking, weekly activity targets.

So, who found their spark?

You might have already guessed it, but what is truly remarkable is how big the difference between methods was. Impressively, socially-connected exercisers increased their daily activity by 20-30 minutes and maintained it for a year, whereas the intrapersonal group became less active after an initial exercise course.

The simple act of sharing experiences, motivations and knowledge about physical activity was enough to increase weekly physical activity to guideline levels, even a year after ending participation in an exercise course. That is, socially-connected exercisers remained independently active months after initial contact with exercise facilitators.

Why is the social approach better at getting you moving?

Our social connections have long been known to influence motivation and behaviour. In fact, the social facilitation theory, which gives an insight into why this occurs, dates back to 1898. The theory suggests that when people do something with others around, they usually put more effort into it. Although the precise psychology is unclear, it is likely that people feel motivated by senses of accountability to others as well as a sense of friendly competition which ultimately drives heightened engagement in the activity.

And when it comes to physical activity, engagement is key to achieving the health benefits we want. 

Going beyond physical activity

The benefits might not be limited to well-known benefits of exercise. There is also evidence that group-based exercise can improve social connectedness to treat or prevent social isolation and loneliness, for enhanced psychological wellbeing and better overall quality of life.  

What’s more, it’s free, easy and you can start doing it today. It could mean reaching out to trusted friends or family, joining a local exercise group, or even joining an online community with shared interests, such as on Facebook or Reddit.

Specifically, the study used five strategies that you can consider as you go, including:

  1. discussing barriers such as lack of time, motivation, or access to facilities, and brainstorming ways to work around them
  2. comparing experiences of exercise motivation which could involve talking about different strategies, tricks, or methods that have worked for you in the past and learning from others' experiences
  3. exploring prompts to get you exercising which could include things like setting reminders, finding a workout buddy, or having a specific routine in place to kickstart your activity
  4. discussing useful social supports which could inclue friends, family, or workout partners who can encourage and motivate you along the way your goals as a role-model which could include setting realistic and achievable goals for yourself, and inspiring others to follow suit by leading by example.

Get going

So, if you’re struggling to find your exercise spark in later life, maybe it’s time to think less about the how or why and think more about the who. Simply sharing experiences might be the push you need. After all, the best exercise program is the one that you actually do. 

The CPC RPA Health for Life Program is a partnership between the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Local Health District.

Mr David Hutchinson

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Senior Exercise Physiologist, CPC RPA Health for Life Program
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