Taking inspiration from Eastern exercise

Postscript goes abroad to find out why personal fitness should be a group activity

Yoga is just one of the many group exercise options available to help you get serious—and social—about your back-to-school workout routine.
Yoga is just one of the many group exercise options available to help you get serious—and social—about your back-to-school workout routine.
Photo: 
Grace Mcconnachie
Grace Mcconnachie

the student body

I’ve always preferred individual exercise to group exercise. Before this past summer, I was perfectly happy to sweat it out solo on the treadmill and avoid all human contact with the help of my iPod. But my opinion on the benefits of group exercise has changed since returning from a recent trip I took to Beijing, China.

I noticed right away the stark differences in the ways that people in Beijing exercise compared to the way many people work out in North America.

Here, it seems many of us drag ourselves to the gym only when our schedules will allow it—as though working out is nothing more than a chore. Once we get to the gym, we tend to get caught up in meeting certain fitness goals while we go through the motions of our individualized workouts. In Beijing, by contrast, entire communities gather at certain times of the day to do group aerobics, dancing and Tai Chi in city parks. People use community exercise as a way to socialize and meet with their friends on a daily basis.

Carolyn Johanson, director of Path Yoga at 336 Barrie St., said participating in a group activity helps people feed off of the energy of the group to increase their focus on their exercise.

“There’s a community feel in terms of the fact that everyone’s here to accomplish the same thing together,” she said. “A lot of what we focus on is concerned with audible breathing, and even being able to hear someone’s breathing beside you can help.

“If someone next to you is taking long, slow, deep breaths, it helps you to forget about your stressful day and stay with what the group is doing.”

Yoga also provides an opportunity to introduce social time into your exercise routine.

“Students do make friends, and I have them do quite a lot of partner work to help with postures and exercise,” Johanson said. “It helps to get to know someone that you normally wouldn’t even make eye contact with because you’re too focused.”

As I observed and eventually experienced the park exercises in Beijing, I noticed that the same people came back day after day and night after night to exercise, gossip and relax with the rest of the community. They weren’t concerned with how many reps they were doing, finishing their workouts by a certain time or making sure they felt the burn more than their peers.

Johanson said a great thing about a group exercise such as yoga is it minimizes these feelings, and helps to shift the importance away from competition.

“Hopefully yoga practice will reduce peoples’ need to feel competitive,” she said. “Yoga allows people to explore their limits in a curious way that is not attached to a specific outcome.”

After my Beijing city park experience, I realized mixing exercise with social time may be a better way to meet fitness goals than going to the gym alone with the attitude of just getting it over with. Aren’t you more likely to make it to an exercise session if it feels like you’re having fun and hanging out with your friends?

Jean Côté, a kinesiology and health studies professor, said exercising in a group helps people stay more committed to their exercise routines.

“Being part of a social environment provides people with an incentive to exercise,” he said. “Adding a social element to exercise is the way to get people hooked. It has to be part of a routine.”

He said exercising with others means you will be more accountable to your routine, and less likely to drop it when other things come up.

“If things get busy in life, or something happens, usually exercise is the first thing that will go,” he said. “If you schedule a meeting with other people and it’s part of your weekly routine, you’re less likely to drop it than if you were just doing exercise alone.”

If you want to get into or stay in shape, why not plan to create an activity regimen that resembles the types of community-based exercises I saw in Beijing?

I’m not saying you should start up a group exercise venue in the park or town square if that’s not your thing. But there are ways to create a new fitness plan or to tweak your current exercise routine to make it more people-oriented. Here are some social suggestions:

  • Join a recreational sports league. Pick a sport you’ve always enjoyed and get to know the people on your team. You will have so much fun, you won’t notice how many calories you’re burning or how much time is left in your workout.
  • Walk or run outside with a partner. Recruit a significant other, friend, housemate or floormate as a fitness buddy. This is a great way to spend more time with important people in your life, and you can get in shape while you do it.
  • Create an exercise group with your friends. Instead of meeting for beer and wings on Tuesday nights, think about meeting with your pals to run, swim, play sports outside or lift weights. Whatever exercise you choose, you can gossip about the week’s happenings while sweating off the frustrations and stresses of the day.
  • Take a dance, yoga, aerobics or martial arts class. This is a great way to improve your fitness, learn something new and meet new people.
  • Work with a trainer. Working out with a personal fitness professional is a good option if none of your friends dig working out or if exercise in a larger group setting isn’t your thing. A trainer can create workouts that are tailored to your time, fitness and personal needs, and they add a social aspect to your exercise routine without the intimidation that can occur when working out in a large group for the first time.

Whatever type of exercise routine you choose this fall, consider following the example of people in Beijing and making it a more social experience. It might make the difference between sticking to your fitness routine and leaving exercise off your to-do list completely.

—With files from Katie Elphick

Overheard in Kingston

“Maybe she was just afraid of your testicles?”

—Girl to boy while waiting in Common Ground line-up

Girl: “Hey, where’s Mike?”

Guy: “Oh, he’s out on a quasi-date with a straight guy.”

—Leonard Cafeteria

“No, we can’t be trophy wives anymore. I got fat and she got smart.”

—Overheard in a third-year mechanical engineering class.

“I don’t know how it happened, but I lost my pants hours ago.”

—An alumnus at the grease pole.

“I really do love global warming; it’s really helping me with my tan.”

—An “environmentalist” girl to her friends in front of Kingston Hall.

Professor: [Listing off the density of metals]...and steel is 8,030 kg per cubic meter. And that’s why I’m such a hit at parties.

—In a civil engineering class.

Have you overheard something kooky? Send your quotes to journal_postscript@ams.queensu.ca.

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