Conventional exercise wisdom says that we’ll be more motivated, accountable and stoked to exercise with a workout buddy. As my friend Gail says, walking with a friend is “just more fun.” But recently she complained that she and her friend have opposing work schedules now, and she’s started to fall off the fitness wagon.
While having a workout buddy or support community is usually a great advantage, sometimes our exercise support group holds us back and we don’t realize it.
To make sure your workout buddy is pushing you hard enough to reach your fitness goals, avoid these group workout pitfalls:
The “Fly on the Wall” Pitfall
“A social aspect is a secret to an enduring fitness regimen,” says Pamela Peeke, author of the book Body for Life for Women. She also told me it becomes especially truer as we get older. Signing up for a fitness class is a great way to turn exercise into a party. The problem is that when you become a fly on the wall, you might get lazy. “If you know you aren’t being judged as an individual, your instinct is to fade into the background,” David McRaney says in You are Not So Smart. That means that in a sea of 35 Zumba-ers, those shimmies can get a little sloppy.
Solution: To get around the natural tendency to “coast” in a group, make an effort stay focused on your own goals and performance. Or, pick a class where you’ll get individual attention (and positive peer pressure) from the teacher and your friends.
The “Flake Out” Pitfall
I struggle with this when using the one-on-one workout buddy system. My friends are busy and have families, so it’s not uncommon for them to back out of a two-person activity. If we planned on tennis or a hike, I can’t go alone, so I tend to bag the workout altogether. I also see this happen with a lot of people I know.
Solution: The best way to prevent a flakey exercise buddy from derailing your regimen is to have a firm, inescapable backup plan one that you can do solo. (That firm plan will also help you resist thinking, “Hey, they’re flaking on their workout so maybe I should too.”)
The “Bystander” Pitfall
When in a group, we have a tendency to play only as hard as everyone else on the team. Why should you be more responsible? A classic example is the tug of war experiment: when blindfolded tuggers were told they were pulling with a team (it was actually a simulated force; they were alone), they pulled 18% less strenuously, on average. This effect can crop up in team sports, as well as when doing something like jogging or cycling with a team.
Solution: Make an effort to compete with yourself rather than trying to match others’ performance. That is unless they’re pushing hard and it’ll do you good to keep up!
The “Sabotage” Pitfall
My friends love to work out. They also love to dine out. A typical scenario: it’s 6 pm on a Friday night, we’re tired from work, and we collectively decide that dinner sounds more fun. Had I been alone, I probably would have done the workout. But, as Carla pointed out, friends and family can be very persuasive.
Solution: Dinner will always win over a workout, so the best way around the “doesn’t Thai food sound amazing?” dilemma is to do both: make dinner the after-exercise reward. I’ve recently implemented this with my rock-climbing friends and it’s working great.
All in all, the workout buddy system is awesome. You can make the most of it by picking workout companions who are more advanced than you, or who are going to challenge you to achieve your best. There have been many times that I’ve been about to give up while climbing, feeling at my limit, when a friend said, “go a little further!” And to my surprise, I found the strength to keep going, all the way to the top.
If you’ve got a workout community, tell your friends about your goals and ask them to push you. Also, collectively commit to upholding your workout commitments. Be a good workout buddy yourself and remember to exercise first, dinner after!