The lone wolf: Are men too 'macho' to work out in groups?

There are several benefits to working out in a group - so why do men avoid exercise classes but love team sports?

19 November 2017 - 00:00 By Dave Thomas
Men need competition to use it as benchmark and a way of pushing themselves to do better
Men need competition to use it as benchmark and a way of pushing themselves to do better
Image: 123RF/HONGQI ZHANG

Group exercise is better for you, according to new research from the US that found that working out with others lowers stress levels by 26% and significantly improves quality of life. Despite this study backing up my business model (I run a chain of group fitness gyms), I think there are problems with it. For example, the participants self-reported their fitness levels, which is a bit like me self-reporting my attractiveness. And they all knew each other from their education, which probably explains why they enjoyed training together.

Personally, as a grumpy misanthrope, I despise most of my friends, so training with them sounds awful. But then again, I am a man.

And that was the part of the study that really grabbed my attention. There were twice as many female participants as male.

Men are much less likely to attend classes like Zumba and boutique bootcamps than specialist cycling classes and CrossFit (note the competitive element), but before we look at why men aren't donning their leggings and joining in, it's worth asking if they're really missing out.

Although the aforementioned study doesn't, to my mind, provide conclusive evidence of the benefits of group training, I'm convinced there are many. The reasons the military, schools and sports teams train together are no different to the general population. The only difference is that those groups don't get a choice.

Group training is cost effective when compared to other proven coaching methods like personal training. The reality in my experience is that once you're sufficiently educated and moving well in the gym, most people are more motivated and continue to stay engaged (and therefore continue to see results) for longer when they train in groups.

Motivation is, of course, a big factor. Group training encourages encouragement and competition. Psychologists call this the Köhler effect, the phenomenon that occurs when a person works harder as a member of a group than when working alone.

Finally, group exercise is fun. If you're a bit like me and you suspect you would get a certain pleasure from self-flagellation with acid-coated whips, then you might also enjoy solo steady-state cardio activities like jogging. However, most normal human beings will find it easier to reap the cardiovascular benefits in a fun group class with different exercises and social interaction to keep them going.

So if group exercise is so great, why do men avoid it? Why are they happy to play five-a-side together, but not go to bootcamps?

It's tempting to jump to intuitive conclusions:

• Men think group exercise is stuck in the 1970s and 1980s, with big hair, bad music, fluorescent outfits, and more steps than the Macarena;

• Men are arrogant, and think they know best how to get in shape;

• Men hate the idea of making a fool of themselves, especially in front of a room full of women; and

• Boys grew up watching Arnie, girls grew up watching Jane Fonda.

Anecdotally, some of this might be true. I know I had all those thoughts on occasion as a younger man. But I also suspect there may be some deeper reasons at play. Namely: stigma, competition and intimidation.

Today's gyms tend to be big (and, dare I say, soulless) places. They rely on signing up thousands of members to cover their baselines, rather than propagating a small, loyal base. As a result, the community aspect of the bodybuilding gyms of yesteryear, where men knew each other and supported each other, has been lost. Those men are now isolated in their fitness journeys. They've grown accustomed to the lone wolf approach.

Men love competition. They use it as a benchmark and a way of pushing themselves to do better

Why do many men treat fitness differently to sport? Blokes love team sport for all the reasons women love group exercise: it provides camaraderie, support and social bonding. So why don't we do fitness classes?

The missing link is competition. Men love competition. They use it as a benchmark and a way of pushing themselves to do better. I am the lightest male staff member in my company by at least a visible set of biceps, so I train with the big boys to push myself that little bit harder.

Clearly the fitness industry needs to adapt to men's specific hangups about group exercises - much in the way it did when it acknowledged the intimidation women felt walking into the weights room.

One suggestion is that we should stop instinctively linking group exercise with exercise to music. I suspect aerobics and boxercise classes would appeal to men more if they concentrated on the workout rather than the rhythm. It's hard enough learning how to squat or punch properly without worrying whether you're also in time.

So, gentleman gym-goers. If you're still not quite convinced to give your local bootcamp, spin studio or lifting class a go, I've got a simple strategy. Grab some likeminded mates, pick something that looks fun, doesn't intimidate you and fits your training goals. Work your arse off in the class, and then simply pretend you're in a five-a-side football team and go for a curry after. - The Telegraph


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