FitnessAs the African proverb goes: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.”

While we have all experienced being part of a group at some point in our lives, in the form of play groups, study groups, support groups, exercise classes, and social media groups, perhaps we never thought about the physical and emotional benefits of being a part of these groups. Research is now showing us that belonging to a group, any kind of group, can help us be more successful with the goals we set out to achieve.

What The Research Shows

According to the Start a Goals Group blog, “Affirmation from group members lifts our spirits. Accountability propels us forward. Approaching the future with a sense of control has been shown to boost the immune system, help with stress management and increase the probability of successful outcomes.”

In fact, research now shows that in addition to the obvious physical health benefits to getting physical activity, belonging to a walking group can help decrease depression.

In a study carried out by the University of Michigan and published in 2014, results showed that “group nature walks are liked with ‘significantly lower depression, less stress and better mental health and well-being’… Additionally, people from the study who had recently encountered stressful life events – such as serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment – experienced a mood boost after outdoor group walks.” As Dr. Sara Warber commented: “Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions such as depression.”

Similarly, another study of walking groups found that “people who walk in groups also tend to have a more positive attitude toward physical activity, a shared experience of wellness and say they feel less lonely and isolated. Taking regular walks can also be a catalyst for adopting other healthy behaviors.”

Why Groups Work

Dr. Art Markham explains the reason for the phenomenon of group success in Ulterior Motives (2012). “People feel more secure when they know that they have others around them who share their goals and care about their progress.” He cites a 2012 paper that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that even a slight connection between people, such as sharing a birth date or arbitrarily being assigned to a group “can increase feelings of warmth and motivation.” Dr. Markham concludes: “Ultimately people seem wired to adopt the goals of the people around with, particularly when they feel close to those others. Of course, that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what the people around us are doing. For that reason, we have to be careful to surround ourselves with other people who are engaging in the behaviors that we would like to see in ourselves.”

Whether it’s an exercise class, a goals group, a quit smoking group, or a social media group, we get the following benefits from being part of a smaller community:

  • Motivation
  • Accountability
  • Camaraderie
  • Affirmation
  • Social interaction
  • Structure

Differences…Make a Difference

When it comes to accountability, it’s not enough that we rely on our friends and family, or even ourselves, to hold us accountable. We need a group of peers that are different from us to provide strength where we may fall short. For example, if you are one who likes to do a lot of research before starting something new to the point of never taking the first step out the door, a group member who is likely to jump head first into something new may be a great counterbalance for you. After all, these other group members have nothing at stake except to see you succeed and for you to support them in their success. They are not going to sabotage your weight loss efforts because they don’t want to lose their best Friday night hot fudge sundae buddy.

Groups are the perfect example of give and take without any kind of emotional strings attached. As a group member, you are able to offer a strategy that has helped you be successful, and in return, you are able to benefit from someone else’s experience. It is truly a win-win situation.

Karen Dean, DTR, CHWC, is a certified health and wellness coach and tobacco treatment specialist with the Community Health Team and Employee Wellness at The University of Vermont Medical Center

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