Can group pressure inspire fitness?

Leslie Goldman demystifies and debunks weird and wonderful trends in health and fitness.

I'm somewhat of a solitary exerciser; other than when doing yoga, I prefer to work out alone, tackling the StepMill, elliptical or weight machines solo. Only once have I partnered with someone for a joint personal training session, when my friend Amanda and I tested a local bridal boot camp that was unexpectedly run by an extraordinarily good-looking trainer, and all I could think was: "Oh, sweet. Pecs McGee is going to make me do burpees and I'll look like some sort of dying seal flopping around on the beach, gasping for air."

But one of the hottest trends going right now is small group fitness classes, where four to six people train together, be it on treadmills, TRX equipment, weights or something else. Fans tout the ability to motivate one another, the fun sense of camaraderie and, often, the reduced cost that comes when splitting a trainer by four instead of one.

Mark Blegen, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise and sport science and co-director of the Women's Health Integrative Research Center at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., is currently conducting an intriguing study on small group personal training. Four women are assigned to a group and instructed to attend an hour-long group cardio and strength training workout twice a week. Each woman has her own fitness goal -- it might be "log 150 minutes of cardio this week" or "lose one pound" or "bench 40 pounds." Sounds simple, right?

Here's the catch: In the first week, if group member No.1 does not attain her goal, group member No. 2 gets kicked out of class for the following week. In the third week, if No. 3 falls short, No. 4 gets the boot for a week, and so on. "You're exercising for your own reasons, but for someone else also," Blegen explained. "Women respond much better to social incentives than men -- they want to help their group members meet their individual goals."

He's got a point: I'm not usually one to skip a workout, but I'm damn sure not going to ditch the gym if I know my laziness will render a fitness-minded friend inactive for a week.

Blegen admits that while his study's model appears to create bonding within the group, ideally leading to enhanced results, there are potential drawbacks. (Guilt, pressure -- we're looking at you.) But overall, I love the concept. Try it with your friends. Rather than simply agreeing to meet at Spin class twice a week, make a pact: If one person doesn't show up, the other has to spring for coffee the next time.

Shoot or pass? Shoot ... just don't flake.

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