The Fitness Zone

The Benefits of Group Fitness Classes and Social Support for Mental Health

May 08, 2023 | by Matt Brown

Immediately when we start to think about “the benefits” of any element of fitness, we gravitate towards the physical benefits.  How big will this exercise get me?  How fit will this class make me?  How much more flexible will I be from this stretch?  And yes, these are all valuable reasons to why you participate in exercise but either subconsciously or consciously, there is a deeper value to exercise.

Mentally you benefit from exercise as much, if not more than physically and I can break down different exercise styles and the positive mental effect they have (which I will touch on here and there), but in this article I specifically want to dive into group fitness classes and the mental benefits that come with them.

To get a deeper understanding we have to look at three different areas: targeted motivation, the science and the benefits themselves.  By breaking down each of these elements I will be able to give the best explanation and definition of this topic using both facts and experience.

Targeted Motivation

As a personal trainer of 10 years, I have run many group fitness sessions with a very broad range of clients ranging from kids to older adults, beginners to experienced and physically limited to able bodied with everything in between.  One of the parts of my job I love is when I’m quiet during a group session.  This is my time to watch and analyse every movement, every body, every facial expression and every effort.  This is also my time to work people out and figure out their motivators.  In this industry you will come across the clients who will grit their teeth and keep moving, the clients who break halfway through every rep range, the clients who have to reach a certain number before breaking and the clients who verbalise how hard the workout is, to name a few.  These are all different styles of coping mechanisms for different clients and I love working them out.  

It seems strange talking about working out what a client’s coping mechanisms are but this is our first step towards benefits of group fitness and the mental health element.  Once I have worked out someone’s coping mechanisms, I can actually start to shift my motivation towards how they operate.  This is where I need to touch on internal VS external motivators:

Internally motivated clients are more self-driven, quiet achievers and don’t necessarily need/want the “rah-rah trainer”.

Externally motivated clients are more so reliant on the atmosphere, people around them and someone giving them a push along.

Once you’ve worked this out, you too can gear your motivation tactics towards each individual.  Group fitness is great because it caters to such a large audience and you can get clients of all shapes, sizes and abilities join your group fitness sessions but, a great skill as a trainer is to be able to communicate with one client effectively in a group of many.  

Already the benefits of group exercise start to take shape, because as a client you walk into a room of people and yet the trainer understands you and how to get the best out of your efforts making the session seem like it’s tailored for you in some way.  Imagine this example: you’re a client who does not need someone yelling or clapping in your face because you are internally motivated and the other clients moving around you is enough to keep you going.  You have a whole session of a trainer clapping at you and verbally “motivating” you across the room so the whole group can hear.  This is NOT mentally encouraging and you may spend most of the session thinking “this is awful” or “shut up mate” or even “please don’t say my name again”.  By understanding a client, you can mentally gear your motivation tactics towards their preferences and make that exact same session much more effective and enjoyable.

The Science

Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that can improve your mood. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.  If you exercise regularly, it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, and help with recovery from mental health issues.  Group exercise not only ticks these boxes but also adds the exaggerated elements of support and encouragement. A group of people, pushing each other along (either verbally or by their effort level) and encouraging each other to get through the session because they are right there with them in the same boat.  As trainers we understand what the exercises we program feel like but we aren’t completing it at the same time as our client.  Only people doing the workout at the time can have a one to one understanding about how they’re feeling at that moment.  Support and encouragement.

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.   Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Some of the key mental health benefits from regular exercise are:

  • Stress relief
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness

Have you ever dragged yourself to a group session, really tossing up whether you should have stayed in bed or not, then 45mins-1 hour later, you’re walking out of the session feeling great and ready to attack the day?  That my friends, is not only a physical high but you have also experienced a mental change thanks to the workout and the environment you were in.

The Benefits

We’ve got our group session, worked out our clients motivators, we’ve got some science and now we start to dive into the benefits.  If a client only needs a quiet word during a session to keep them motivated, they will still feel the mental benefits of the group session without broadcasting motivation towards this client in front of the group.  Here are a few feelings that you want your client feeling during a group fitness session:

  • Motivated – picking your clients compatible style of motivation and gearing all your motivation towards that client in the way they prefer to receive it. 
  • Comfortable – whether they are your longest serving client or it’s their first day, making a client feel comfortable in the workout, in the surroundings and with the others in the room
  • Respected – not one person is better than another and no one should be treated this way.  Everyone is an adult and regardless of abilities or experience, they are treated equally.
  • Supported – one of the most important aspects of group fitness which I have touched on already in this article.  Support comes in many forms and can be delivered by both trainers and other clients.  Being smart with how a session is planned or verbage you use can encourage a more supportive environment.
  • Recognised – whether it’s a thumbs up across the room, a knowing nod, a high five, a quiet word or verbalising it to the group, we all want our efforts recognised and exercising is no different.
  • Successful – we all want to win or be successful – that’s just the way it is, but successful doesn’t necessarily mean first place.  It can mean a heavier weight, a harder version of a move, being one of the better performers of the group session or turning up and having a go when you really didn’t want to.  That is success.
  • Accomplished – Finally, that feeling of accomplishment when the trainer says “and stop there” or when that final buzzer goes.  That initial feeling may be relief but as you’re walking back to your car that sense of accomplishment thinking to yourself “I did that and now i’m ready to attack the day”.

How does a client feel these things?  By the social environment they are put in during the session.  Knowing the client, knowing how they work and grouping similar personalities together creating tighter support groups.  Feeling supported during an exercise session is one of the most important elements of fitness because it feeds into the clients preferred style of motivation and rapport.  Social exercise is not a lower intensity exercise, but it more relates to completing exercise in a supportive, social environment where clients can interact with each other and the trainer in a relaxed, jovial way.

Top benefits of social exercising include:

  1. It’ll help boost your mood. Connecting with others makes us feel good, but socialising while doing exercise releases the feel-good hormones, endorphins at the same time.  As mentioned earlier, clients experiencing the same session at the same time will be able to have a one to one understanding of how the others are feeling in that moment.  Exercise not only lifts your mood, but can also help you feel less stressed and better able to deal with challenges more clearly. 
  2. You’re more likely to keep up momentum. When you exercise on your own, it can sometimes be tempting to slow down after a while, especially if you get tired or aren’t really enjoying what you’re doing. In group fitness sessions or classes, the intensity of your workout is more likely to remain higher due to either having other people around you, subconsciously competing against the other people in the room or just the energy of the environment itself meaning you’ll get the most out of it.
  3. Exercise becomes fun. You’re not alone if the very word ‘exercise’ puts you off being physically active. But if the focus becomes more about socialising, then the exercise part becomes secondary and will feel less like something you feel you ‘have to get over and done’ with. Plus, it’s worth taking the time to find out what activities you really enjoy, so that if you do exercise on your own, you’ll still enjoy it!
  4. You’re less likely to skip the session or hit the snooze on your alarm. An advantage of classes and group training sessions is that they take place at set times, so can quickly become part of your weekly routine. And if you’ve committed to meet a friend in the park for a walk or jog, you’re less likely to cancel at the last minute.  The stronger your relationship gets with others in the class adds this unspoken accountability because you know who’s going to be there and you know someone will ask “where were you last week”.  Social accountability is more encouragement to put those shoes on and get out the door.
  5. It’s a great way to meet new people. Joining an exercise class or a group, such as a walking or running club, is also a great way to meet and connect with like-minded people, as you’ll have a shared interest in the activity you’re doing  and a desire to feel fit and healthy.

There are multiple reasons why group fitness is not only physically but mentally beneficial and the word I will come back to again is: support.  For the group session to have a great social environment, a solid workout and recognition of your hard work, it takes everyone in the room to be on the same page.  For us trainers, we take care of the nuts and bolts of the session and from there it’s our job to have our “quiet moment”, read the room and help each individual through their session.  For clients, the supportive environment created by both us trainers and the other clients in the room will do wonders for their ability, effort levels and overall enjoyment of the group fitness session.


Matt Brown

Matt Brown

As a personal trainer of 11 years, I have had the privilege to work with a wide array of clients and limitations. My role is to not only support my client’s wants but to address their needs and incorporate this into our planning and programming. From beginners to athletes and everyone in between it has always been my role to make my clients feel supported, welcomed and give them the sense of achievement.

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