It is a widely accepted notion that regular exercise is beneficial to overall health — not just because it helps to prevent weight gain and maintain the body's shape, but also because it has been found to reduce the impact of stress factors.
One study recently covered by Medical News Today, for instance, found that as little as 1 hour of exercise per week can prevent depression. Another study found that exercise improved muscle health and positively impacted life expectancy.
New research from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, ME, now suggests that the context in which you exercise may significantly affect the efficiency of the workout.
More specifically, exercising with a group of people seems to have a greater beneficial effect than an individual workout.
"The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone."
Lead researcher Dr. Dayna Yorks
The study's findings were published today in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
Group workouts lower stress levels
Dr. Yorks and her team recruited 69 medical students at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine. They targeted this group because previous studies had shown that medical students face considerable stress and report a lower quality of life.
The participants chose whether to join a 12-week group exercise program or to follow a similar 12-week plan on an individual basis.
In addition to these two groups, a third acted as the control. The participants in the control group did not engage in any exercise except walking or riding a bike on their usual routes, such as from home to work.
The researchers noted that the participants who had joined group workouts exhibited over 26 percent lower stress levels and reported an improved quality of life at the end of the program.
At the same time, the participants who had engaged in individual workouts appeared to have put more effort into their physical activity plan but gained much less from the experience, with no significant improvement of stress levels and little improvement of their overall quality of life.
"The findings support the concept of a mental, physical, and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians," says Dr. Yorks.
Mental, emotional, physical improvements
At 4-week intervals during the program, the participants responded to surveys, rating their perceived stress levels and overall quality of life. They referred to three categories: mental, emotional, and physical.
Those who had joined the group workouts had to engage in CXWORX — a training program focusing on core strength and functional fitness — for 30 minutes at least once each week throughout the 12 weeks.
At the end of the program, the group workout participants self-reported significant improvements in all the categories surveyed by the researchers.
The team found a 12.6 percent improvement in mental health, a 24.8 percent improvement in physical well-being, and a 26 percent improvement in emotional well-being, as well as 26.2 percent lower stress levels.
Participants who chose to engage in individual workouts instead were allowed to pick their own fitness practices but were asked to exercise either alone or with a maximum of two partners.
The lone participants exercised for twice as long as their counterparts, but the only significant improvement they reported was in their mental well-being, wherein they registered an 11 percent increase.
Dr. Yorks and team suggest that their findings should provide a "springboard" for medical schools to provide appropriate fitness facilities and programs for their students.
"Medical schools understand their programs are demanding and stressful," suggests Dr. Yorks. "Given this data on the positive impact group fitness can have, schools should consider offering group fitness opportunities."
"Giving students an outlet to help them manage stress and feel better mentally and physically," she adds, "can potentially alleviate some of the burnout and anxiety in the profession."