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Friends with Benefits: Oxford Study Finds the Best Way to Improve and Stay Motivated for Exercise

If you want to improve your personal relationships, you may want to try exercising with friends and family.

According to an Oxford University study, exercising together brings us closer to one another, while exercising with those close to us also improves our performance.

Researchers from the University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, carried out two experiments to evaluate how group exercise and social cohesion influence one another.


Lead author Dr. Emma Cohen said, “The physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of exercise are increasingly understood, but participants often report experiencing meaningful social benefits when they exercise together with others, whether they are dancing in a ceilidh or running in an urban marathon. Anthropologists, too, have long speculated on the importance of group movement and exercise, in various forms, for social cohesion across different cultures. Now we are beginning to identify the unique psychological mechanisms responsible for these important social effects.”

With the first experiment, researchers set out to determine whether moderately intense group exercise causes strangers to bond more than low intensity exercise. The participants were placed into groups of three asked to use side-by-side rowing machines at both low and moderate intensity.

Researchers found that participants who rowed at moderate intensity cooperated with one another better in a post-exercise game than those who rowed at a low intensity.

So, what’s the reason for this?

The researchers suggest that unique psychological effects of moderate intensity exercise may play a major role. After all, it’s not new news that moderate intensity workouts can increase activity in the body’s pain relief and reward systems. Stimulation in the endorphin and endocannabinoid systems, for example, has been linked to feelings of pleasure, well being, and self-transcendence (aka ‘runner’s high’).

And sharing that high with others only strengthens your bond (in a totally different way that sharing a joint at a music festival does).

“It may be that experiencing exercise-induced natural highs with others leads to a sort of ‘social high’ that facilitates group bonding, friendship, and cooperative behavior.”

A second experiment also examined the relationship between joint exercise and social bonding, but this time flipped the first on its head by asking whether social bonds influence exercise performance. The research subjects were a cohesive team of rugby players – the University of Oxford Rugby Football Club.

The participants performed a difficult individual sprint test after warming up together either synchronously or non-synchronously. The experiment found that players performed significantly better on the running test after doing a synchronous warm-up with a teammate, as compared to warming up non-synchronously with a teammate.

This is consistent with previous studies that have shown that synchronous movement signals bonding.

The researchers conclude that the findings from both studies offer evidence for a reciprocal relationship between exercise and social bonds. Group exercise lead to more bonded groups and exercise in bonded groups facilitates exercise performance.

So maybe signing up for that new yoga studio or bootcamp isn’t such a bad idea after all – especially if you’re in the market to shed those summer beer and BBQ pounds and add a few more personal connections to your smartphone.


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