The benefits of regular exercise include a healthy heart, sleeping better, improving your mood, feeling more energetic and staying a sensible weight. Put simply, exercise helps us lead longer and happier lives. The hard part is making exercise a routine habit. If it feels like a chore or too daunting, you won't stick to a healthy regime.
But when exercise is fun you're more likely to stick to getting fit. Whether it's gossiping as you run with a friend or laughing and groaning in an exercise class when an instructor challenges you all to do 10 more, making exercise social is a key part of making fitness fun.
In an Oxford University study the rowing team was divided into teams of six, each of which performed a series of identical workouts on rowing machines. The only variable was whether the workouts were performed alone, or in teams with the six rowing machines synchronised.
After each workout, a blood-pressure cuff was tightened around one arm of each subject until he reported pain, an indirect method of measuring endorphin levels in the brain. Endorphins - the same chemicals that stimulate 'runner's high' - produce a mild opiate high and create a sense of wellbeing as well as blocking pain. The rowers' pain threshold - or feeling of wellbeing - was consistently TWICE as high after exercising with their teammates compared to exercising alone, even though the intensity of the workouts was identical.
This heightened endorphin factor of feeling part of a group explains how exercise can be changed from a chore to a pleasurable and lifelong habit for people. But, says Kathryn Freeland, celebrity personal trainer and founder of Absolute Fitness: "Know yourself and pick an activity you'll enjoy at a time you can commit to. If you're not a morning person, there is no way you're going to stay jogging with a group of friends at 6am three times a week."
Here are 10 suggestions of ways to make exercise social and something to look forward to.
1. Play tennis with a friend.
There's a reason why we say 'play' tennis (football, rugby, basketball...) - they're fun and inherently social games that people love from childhood. Book a tennis court every week and commit to that. You can find tennis courts in every town and many villages nationwide. Alternatively, join a group tennis lesson where you might also meet a future tennis partner.
2. Get a dog.
Seriously, if you're a dog owner you're instantly granted access to one of the most sociable active groups around. Whether you prefer peppering your walk with chats with fellow dog walkers or find yourself striding out with the same group every morning, it's a great way to make exercise social. Plus, of course, your dog's needs mean you can't bail on one or two walks a day, every day.
3. Join an exercise class.
If you're daunted by going by yourself, go with a friend or workmate. "Change classes every 10 weeks so you mix it up and don't get bored," advises Kathryn Freeland. Zumba, boxercise, pilates, circuits, there are so many to choose from.
4. Join a running club or run with a friend.
"I love exercising with my friends," says Bethan Taylor, who blogs at www.aprettyplacetoplay.com. "Heading out for a run or to do some circuits in the park is a fab and free way to catch up and spend quality time with your mates. If you're with your friends you're more likely to try that little bit harder as you can motivate each other when things start to feel tough, with the massive advantage of knowing which type of encouragement works best because you know each other so well."
5. Do an exercise DVD or with a friend.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get to a regular class, but working out regularly with a friend or neighbour to an exercise video, either a DVD or on YouTube, is a great way to have a laugh, push each other and not even leave the comfort of your living room.
6. Make exercise part of your non-exercising social life.
"Go to the pub but take a long walk along the river with your partner to get there," suggests Freeland. "If you're going out for dinner with friends, walk together to the restaurant at a deliberately far distance."
7. Play a team sport.
Playing a team sport is a great way to meet new people and bond socially, from netball to five-a-side football. Check out local sports centres and community boards.
8. Book a weekend fitness retreat with a friend.
It's a great way to kickstart feeling upbeat about fitness and determined to carry on. Kathryn Freeland co-runs a wellbeing weekend at Green Farm Fitness offering trim trails around the Kent woodlands, pilates and yoga in the barn, group hikes, massages and home-cooked food. "Our last group didn't know each other at all before the weekend but they have all become Facebook friends and have just re-booked together for the same time next year," she says.
9. Social and altruistic - win-win!
TCV, a UK environmental volunteering charity, run Green Gyms throughout the country. Not only do you spend hours being active outdoors but you meet new like-minded people but you get the warm glow of satisfaction that your efforts are helping the environment. Enter your postcode on the TCV site and you'll find lots of local groups meeting to create ponds, plant hedgerows and clear woodlands.
10. Join a dance class.
From salsa to ballet to tea dance classes where you learn to waltz, tango and cha-cha, there's a style to suit everyone. You can work up a sweat (or a gentle glow) and meet other people.
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