Last Updated November 10, 2023 (originally published November 23, 2021)
As a health and exercise professional, you know that group fitness workouts have the power to help individuals achieve well-known benefits like maintaining a healthy body weight or increasing lean muscle mass. But, did you know that they can also be a powerful stimulus for enhancing emotional wellness and improving mental health After all, exercise serves to elevate levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and cannabinoids, which help to increase feelings of pleasure while also reducing sensations of physical discomfort. In addition, exercising in a group setting offers that increasingly important social aspect that helps foster community and connection. Whether it’s the words of encouragement from an instructor or simply being caught up in the music and energy of other participants, here are six ways that group fitness can contribute to emotional wellness.
1. Music can have an immediate positive impact on emotions and feelings.
Lauren George, a Mississippi-based ACE Certified Personal Trainer and co-creator of the Barre Above group fitness program, knows that music can be the key to creating a positive emotional experience. “Music is extremely powerful when it comes to evoking emotion! It can transport us back in time, remind us of a loved one, lift our mood, increase our determination and help us to establish connections through shared experiences. It’s my experience that my participants may not remember what exercises we did, but they will remember a great playlist,” she says.
2. Challenging exercise can help produce hormones and neurotransmitters that are essential for optimal emotional health.
Dr. Steve Durant, a Boston-based sports psychologist and exercise enthusiast who attends weekly workouts with former rugby teammates, believes that group fitness plays an important role in changing body chemistry. “On Saturdays, I look forward to a boot-camp workout that I do with many other older rugby players. We may look and move like the Walking Dead but it’s a huge oxytocin boost and dopamine rush that also elevates testosterone,” says Durant, “all of which help us to feel like we’re our younger selves as we’re working our [tails] off.”
3. Challenging workouts build self-confidence.
A challenging group workout isn’t just good for your body; it can also give you the confidence to overcome other challenging aspects of life. “There is an important mental strength component to exercise,” explains Kelly Moore, an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor and CEO of Fit Tech University. “Once participants experience themselves becoming stronger and more capable of completing tough workouts, it gives them the ability to apply that experience to other life events.”
4. Exercise provides a break from screen time.
Cori Parks, an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer who lives in Vienna, Va., feels that group fitness offers a literal and emotional break from our screens and devices. “A group workout is a much-needed break from tech and screen time; many participants have mentioned that they love disconnecting from tech while connecting with others in real life.”
5. The group fitness experience may alleviate symptoms of depression.
Tasha LaShay Moody is an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor who lives in Alabama who believes that group exercise has changed her life in multiple ways, including helping her overcome symptoms of depression. “As a mom who works full time, I had no ‘me time.’ I became depressed, gained weight, and just didn't care about much,” she explains. “Everything suffered, including my loved ones because I was just very depressed. When I found a group fitness class that I enjoyed, my whole life changed. I was happier and more energetic in everyday life. I looked forward to going to class and was excited again! My class ended when my instructor had to stop teaching because of personal reasons, and it was like a rug had been ripped from beneath me. In talking to my friends (friends that I made in that class and now talk to every day), I learned they also needed the class for the very same reasons. I made the decision to become a group fitness instructor because of this. I never would've gotten the push I needed without it. It literally changed my life and I've never felt more excited or blessed.”
6. Group fitness builds a strong community.
The sense of community and empowerment that comes from feeling like you’re part of a group pursuing the same goal is vital to long-term adherence to an exercise program. Here are a few examples of the value of that community:
Megan Rodham, a pediatric nurse located in Northern Virginia, didn’t realize how much she appreciated the emotional component of group workouts until she stopped going to them. “I’d done group workouts for years until my husband got sick—that’s when I stopped going,” she explains. “I miss the camaraderie, the stretching and the team effort. I now realize what an important part of my life it was. It was more than exercise; it was a team. It was family.”
Purnima Aiyar, a group fitness instructor in Bangalore, India, has experienced benefits as both a participant and an instructor. “As someone who has been on both sides, as an instructor and participant, some of the emotional benefits I’ve experienced include feeling seen, valued and less alone on one’s fitness journey.” Plus, she says, “the energy from a group of people all working towards the same goal [in a class] can be contagious.”
Amy Connell, a Houston, Texas-based ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor, thrives off of the community element of group fitness, “The community aspect of group fitness is an enormous benefit that can be hard to quantify,” says Connell, who is the author of Your Worthy Body: Find Freedom in Health by Breaking All of the Rules. “I’ve witnessed participants walking into class not feeling their best emotionally, [but] once the workout is complete, they’re smiling and chatting with friends, and it is easy to see they have completely changed their mindset. Even though participants may not know each other before coming into the studio, during class there is a feeling that we are all in this together and they lift each other up so everyone has a successful workout.”
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my group fitness participants came together to support me,” says Lori Ann Vance, an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor from Vancouver, Wash. “The day after I met with my surgeon, I walked into class, and everyone was wearing pink shirts! Not only that, but they also loved and supported me through the entire journey. Whether you are the instructor or a participant, seeing the same people in class week after week creates a real sense of community.”
David Mesirow, an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor based in Palm Springs, Calif., who has been teaching group workouts for more than 40 years, has observed that group workouts are especially important for the emotional wellness of his older participants. “For many older adults, their daily trip to the gym to take a class is the only time they get out of their house to interact and converse with their peers.”
Changing Lives One Drop of Sweat at a Time
Almost all instructors have experiences like these and get to witness first-hand how the dynamics of group fitness can change an individual’s emotional state almost immediately. The routine of going to a class and seeing familiar, friendly faces with an instructor who knows you might be the only positive social experience that some individuals have in a day. The most rewarding thing about teaching group fitness is knowing that while you are leading a workout for a group of people, you are literally changing their lives for the better.
To learn more about how to build a caring and task-involving climate that fosters success and brings the best out of your participants, check out ACE RRAMP Approach™: Cultivating Behavior Change through Group Fitness (worth 0.1 ACE CECs).