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Social fitness: How workout friends can keep your routine on track

William Stearns By William Stearns

Friends running on the boardwalk

I used to think exercise was best done solo. Running before dawn, hiking steep trails at my own pace, that kind of thing. The problem is, I don’t stick with any activity long enough for it to become a habit. Sooner or later, I lose my motivation.

Then, two years ago I met Donal, who owns a health club in my neighborhood. He often saw new members who had resolved to make a change. “They come regularly for a while, try out different machines. But they don’t really keep it going,” he said. “Many of them give up in a few months.”

How do you turn a resolution into a lasting routine?, I asked him. “Simple: Find a workout buddy or take classes,” he replied. “It’s easier if you’re having fun, if somebody else cheers you on and expects you to do the same.”

"Social involvement is important to maintaining healthy behavior."

Health experts agree social involvement is an important factor in maintaining healthy behavior. At least one study found that husbands and wives who exercise together are far less likely to give up the habit than those who work out separately. Another study concluded that habits are contagious: We tend to mirror the behavior of the people around us, good or bad.

Common sense tells us that group activities discourage the excuses that get in the way of so many fitness plans. My friend Kate, a grant writer, has been meeting her running partner at the park three times a week for the past two years. “I don’t know that much about the rest of her life,” she marvels. “But we’re like teammates and cheerleaders for each other. Neither one of us wants to let the other down, so we show up on time and feel better for it.”

I recently began taking Kate’s advice — and listening to the experts — by making my routine more social. Most weekends, five to seven of us meet to bike or hike. Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s a spin class with a fantastic instructor and attendees I look forward to seeing each time. Tuesdays and Fridays are “date nights” when my wife and I run, walk, hike or swim, depending on our mood and the weather.

Are you looking to connect with others who share your health ambitions? Read on for ways to get started:

  • Stop by the YMCA or community center to learn about local sports leagues and fitness groups. Beyond hosting their own classes, these social hubs are popular meeting spots for outside groups.
  • Check out Facebook or Meetup for outdoor fitness groups in your area, from walking and running to yoga and tai chi. You can tailor your search using keywords like “beginner,” “women,” or “singles” to find groups that match your fitness level and social goals.
  • Mobile apps like MapMyRun and Strava allow you to find acquaintances who are interested in the same activities you are. Discovering a coworker who runs at the same time and pace could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Another cool feature: You can send real-time tracking information to a loved one, in case of emergency.
  • Your health insurance may offer fitness discounts or reimbursements. Some Aetna plans, for example, offer discounts on group exercise classes. Log in to review your fitness benefits.

For me, exercising in good company works better than anything I’ve tried in the past. Overall, I’m doing great, having fun and giving something back to my sweaty companions. And I’m proud to say that, this time, my resolution has turned into a healthy habit.

About the author

William Stearns is a career newshound who has given some of his best years to organizations like ABC News, NBC News, Time and Sports Illustrated.  He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son, who regularly remind him that this is the year he’s going to get more sleep and exercise every day (rather than just talk about it).