I love group fitness, and over the years, I have been a member, coach and collaborator with various group fitness organizations. Moreover, as a physical therapist for greater than a decade, I have treated injuries from group fitness practices such as yoga, Pilates, Crossfit, Bodypump, P90X, Spinning, Barre, the Lithe method, kettlebell training, and various bootcamps. Therefore, I am never surprised when I encounter individuals that have incurred an injury participating in one of these modes of fitness. I am surprised, however, when the individuals that have been injured are somehow surprised that they were injured during the process. Moreover, I am even more surprised when these individuals blame the fitness environment for their injuries. I have no intention of offending anyone but to me blaming a group fitness environment for your injury is like blaming McDonald’s for your obesity. As adults there is a certain amount of personal responsibility we must take for our own choices. Joining a group fitness environment is a choice, therefore, responsibility must be taken for any consequences that come from that decision. This statement by no means indicates that we should not participate in these endeavors, but instead we must be informed consumers regarding what decisions we are making. My intent with this discussion is to separate out the benefits of group fitness from the risks, as well as discuss ways that we as adults can be more responsible for the health of our bodies and minds in these environments.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, coined the acronym PERMA to describe the basic tenets of Positive Psychology, which is simply stated, the scientific study of that which makes life worth living. With a little contemplation we can easily connect this acronym to the group fitness environment. Moreover, this acronym can act as a checklist for factors that we can seek out to make sure that we are in an environment that is promoting well being.
P - POSITIVE EMOTIONS
Exercise and physical movement have been demonstrated over and over again to create positive change in the brain that decrease incidences of depression, and promote more positive feeling towards life.
E - ENGAGEMENT
This is seen in group fitness environments when the activities that are being performed are actually being enjoyed by the participants. In my professional opinion, this would tend to include activities where there is a progressive improvement of a skill, as opposed to activities that are random or routine with the sole purpose of making someone “work hard” to produce a “sweat or burn”.
R - RELATIONSHIPS
To me this factor is the benefit that is the most unique to the group setting. This factor refers to the community that we adopt when we add a group fitness practice into our lifestyle. This factor also helps to promote the previous two mentioned factors by creating positive emotions of love, kindness, and compassion towards others we encounter in this community, as well as by encouraging us to engage deeper into the endeavors introduced in this environment so that we can enjoy a greater shared experience with our new found fitness friends.
M - MEANING
This factor is vital to the value we gain from our group fitness experience. If we approach our time as something we are surviving through because we are “supposed to exercise” we are unlikely to find much positive meaning in the experience. However, if we view the time we spend working on our physical fitness as a major contributing factor in allowing us to improve our abilities to play with our kids, embark on active traveling expeditions, and/or minimize the all too typical degenerative effects of the aging process, we will likely find greater well being in our lives through the group fitness environment.
A - ACHIEVEMENT
This factor can make or break both the quality and the safety of the group fitness environment. If there are no true metrics for progress but only a promise of an intense workout that creates lots of sweating and calorie burning, the value of achievement will unlikely be realized. Moreover, without a focus on progress there is a much greater risk of injury when performing high quantities of movement as the body is not given an appropriate time period or stimulus to create change that would make it more resilient to progressively increasing physical challenges. On the other hand, if the focus of the group fitness environment is that of gradual, progressive improvement in the amount of load we can lift, the speed/explosiveness of motion we can create, and/or the amount of time we can endure, we will notice meaningful change in not only our fitness lives but also our lives outside the gym. Ideally we will be able to notice this at a pace that allows our bodies to gradually adapt to the increased challenges we are throwing at it. This pace will be specific to us as individuals and not based on competition created by the group as whole. After all we all have different starting points and rates of adaptability. To not recognize these individual differences is our choice as adults, however, it must be understood that it also will increase our risk of injury. Therefore, we give up the right to be surprised or accusatory when we get injured.
Being a former coach in a group fitness environment, and contrasting that to my current situation as a one-on-one physical therapist and fitness professional, I can say with reasonable certainty that there is no way to make a group environment as targeted to an individual’s needs as a one-on-one session. With this being said, there will always be more risk of injury in the group environment. Moreover, as long as the general public believes that healthy exercise is based on how high we get our heart rates and how much water weight we can sweat out, there will be businesses that meet our needs by offering simple solutions through a daily sweat. This mindset creates an environment where we perform greater volumes of activities that we can already do, but rarely address physical limitations that we currently do not have access to. This is because in order to address physical limitations we would not be able to spend all our movement time moving fast, spiking our heart rates, or “working hard”. Instead, by improving activities that we are currently limited with we need to take time to PRACTICE. We need to take the time to LEARN how to do something we currently can’t do. We need to be STUDENTS again. For many adults, this is the last thing we think we have time for. We are too busy and too old to learn new things. “Please somebody just give me a program I can mindlessly follow so that I can put my physical activity on autopilot.” Unfortunately, this mindset feeds the marketing machine of the fitness industry that makes the formula for physical change sound simple, and makes us feel inadequate and lazy because we are not working hard enough. Therefore, we think we need to DO more instead of LEARN something. Instead of seeking out a teacher we seek out a simple solution. As long as this continues, we are asking for environments that promote overuse injury instead of improved physical performance.
As adults, when we decide to take part in group fitness classes we need to take responsibility for our own bodies and to what movements and activities we can control. With this being said, it vital that we have an understanding how to appropriately progress and regress any movement prescribed to us. More importantly, we need to understand markers for loss of control within a movement so that we know when it is time for us to rest or regress a movement. Furthermore, we need to know what our baseline level of skill is for any individual movement so that we know where to train in any given session. Finally, it is our responsibility to understand how to manipulate different movements to accomplish the modality of fitness (strength, power, endurance) that our body needs the most.
If not well studied in the field of fitness, I would expect this to sound a bit overwhelming. Luckily, there are well educated movement professionals that can teach us the skills to self regulate our readiness for what is asked of us in a group fitness environment. In my opinion, the personal fitness professional needs to collaborate instead of compete with group fitness practices to prepare clients for the movements they will routinely encounter in their communities. If an individual fitness session is utilized to motivate a client to work harder instead of educate him/her to be resilient to more challenging environments it is a dangerous waste of money and time.