Are Fitness Classes Better Than Individual Training?


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I kind of hate fitness classes. I’m not sure why, either. I’ve done them before and I genuinely hate the blasted things. Even when the training modalities are things I like, I find that I get sick of the methodologies behind these classes very quickly.

However, I ran across a study that claims classes are more effective in multiple ways than individual training.

It seems the study found:

Researchers found working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent and significantly improves quality of life, while those who exercise individually put in more effort but experienced no significant changes in their stress level and a limited improvement to quality of life, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

“The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone,” said Dayna Yorks, DO, lead researcher on this study. “The findings support the concept of a mental, physical and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians.”

Dr. Yorks and her fellow researchers at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine recruited 69 medical students — a group known for high levels of stress and self-reported low quality of life — and allowed them to self-select into a twelve-week exercise program, either within a group setting or as individuals. A control group abstained from exercise other than walking or biking as a means of transportation.

Every four weeks, participants completed a survey asking them to rate their levels of perceived stress and quality of life in three categories: mental, physical and emotional.

It seems that the group class individuals reported improvement in the three metrics: mental (12.6 percent), physical (24.8 percent) and emotional (26 percent).

Now, it looks like kind of a slam dunk.

Since I’m always looking for an edge, I thought I needed to look deeper into this. After all, maybe I need to take a step back and give group classes another try. I mean, maybe CrossFit is something I should be trying out.

However, I pulled up the actual study and here’s what it says about the three groups.

Demographic information was collected at baseline. First- and second-year osteopathic medical students at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNECOM) were recruited via classwide e-mails, class announcements, and class-specific Facebook postings to participate in a 12-week controlled study.

Students were allowed to self-select into 1 of 3 nonrandomized groups:

▪ Fitness class group: Using CXWORX (Les Mills International LTD), the group fitness class participants engaged in at least 1 class per week, plus additional exercise if desired.

▪ Health-enhancement group: This group included students exercising alone or with up to 2 additional partners regularly (eg, running, weight lifting) at least twice per week.

▪ Control group: Beyond walking or biking as a means of transportation, this group did not engage in regular exercise.

Students were withdrawn from the study if they did not comply with the exercise requirements outlined for their chosen group. Students were not excluded from the study if they were already engaging in group fitness classes. However, as this project was developed partially in an effort to lay the foundation for an enduring group fitness program for UNECOM, there were few regular group fitness opportunities available for
students before this study.

What’s not mentioned in the study is precisely what protocol those who trained individually used. That leads me to believe that one wasn’t provided.

Without an understanding of just what they were doing leads me to offer an alternate hypothesis for just why the results are what they are.

Maybe the problem was that the classes had someone who knew something about exercise leading the way. That meant they had someone who could evaluate form, volume, and intensity. They also had people who could make sure enough of everything was provided for proper training.

While training alone or in small groups, though, improper training techniques could easily manifest itself. For example, using too light of a weight while lifting or too low of an intensity in their cardio would likely have resulted in poor results.

In other words, the individual training subjects may just have trained badly.

And that actually does point out the upside of group classes.

Group classes take a lot of the guesswork out of training. The instructor, who is usually trained to some degree, tells you what to do and how to do it. They check and make sure you’re using proper form and intensity. Basically, they do the thinking.

That last part sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. A lot of people want to train, but they don’t want to study how to train. Group classes make it so they won’t have to.

It’s like having a personal trainer in that way.

When you train by yourself, you don’t get any of that, which means you can make lots of mistakes. I remember plenty of my own. For example, I once decided to just train movement patterns without really understanding how to do so.

Had I been in a fitness class built around the idea, though, things might have been different.

As for the study, I suspect the issue lies in people training on their own not really understanding how to train. As the subjects were medical students, it’s entirely possible. Especially since they probably didn’t have the time to spend learning how to train.

With that in mind, I’m not ready to buy in on the idea that fitness classes are somehow the answer to all the problems. I think this study is skewed a bit due to improper design, though I welcome any information showing otherwise.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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