How to Build Your Fitness Support System

Think about the last big goal you reached. When things got tough, who did you turn to for support? Your friends, a partner, or maybe an accountability group of some sort? Having people in your corner not only feels good, but the extra support helps keep you going when your personal motivation starts to wane. 

“When you have other people cheering you on and wanting the best for you, you tend to feel recharged,” explains Kelley Kitley, L.C.S.W., psychotherapist, and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy, LLC. “Motivation is contagious, and sometimes you run out of it on your own.” 

Whether your fitness goal is to run a marathon or simply move your body more on a regular basis, you’re more likely to succeed when you’re working alongside a someone else. No matter where you are in your health journey, getting where you want to be is easier — and a lot more fun — when you’re part of a group, no matter how big or small. 

Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of having an accountability buddy (or buddies) — and how to find your own so that you can use the power of many to stay motivated.

Katrina Scott (left) & Karena Dawn (right)

The Benefits of Having a Fitness Support System

From published research to personal success stories, there’s a large body of evidence to support the theory that having an accountability buddy helps achieve fitness goals. But how exactly does a support system help you reach your fitness goals? Here’s a look at some of the key benefits of finding your fitness family.

You’ll stay committed.

In a review published in the International Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology, one major finding was the positive correlation between having emotional support and successfully starting and maintaining an exercise routine. Having a team of people behind you keeps you accountable and consistent, explains Andrew Watkins, NASM-certified personal trainer at Sports Performance Lab

When you’ve had a long day at work and all you want to do is come home, put on some sweatpants, and watch Netflix, the idea of working out can feel unappealing, says Watkins. Getting a message from your trainer or accountability buddy in that moment when you’re deciding whether or not to skip out on a workout can make all the difference.

“The pressure of following through [for another person] is often enough motivation to fight through the internal dialogue that’s trying to discourage working out,” explains Candace Southall, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor.

Kate Dunlap (left) & Anna Victoria (right)

You’ll enjoy working out more.

You probably don’t need research to prove that working out with a friend is more fun —  but just in case, that’s exactly what this study from the University of Southern California discovered. Study participants even felt happier and enjoyed physical activity when they worked out alongside a friend or partner rather than solo. Why is exercising in a group setting more enjoyable? It helps those who are struggling with feeling alone or unknowledgeable feel more supported during a workout, says Nehemiah Owusu, NASM-certified personal trainer at Life Time. “This can impact a person’s workout experience by increasing [their] sense of accomplishment, belonging, positivity, and also fun,” he explains. 

You’re more likely to try (and stick to) something new.

Starting a new fitness routine can be stressful — especially if you’re new to working out or have had a bad experience with exercise in the past. Working out with a friend or in a group of people who are at a similar starting point helps alleviate the stress of trying an unfamiliar type of workout. “Having a friend or group who looks like you and understands your struggles can be the difference between coming back and making the workout a habit or quitting on the first try because no one ‘gets it,'” explains Lindsay Wenndt, an ACE-certified group fitness instructor who hosts group classes for women in larger bodies . Finding a supportive community can be especially impactful for groups who are marginalized by diet and fitness culture, such as people in larger bodies or people of color.

Kelsey Wells (left) & Kayla Itsines (right)

You’ll push yourself harder.

Have you heard of the Köhler Effect? Named after German psychologist Otto Köhler, it’s the idea that within a group setting, no one wants to be the weakest link — which pushes individuals to work harder than they would if they were not part of a team effort. In his original research, Köhler asked members of a rowing club to do standing curls until failure (aka, they physically couldn’t complete any more reps). He found that when compared with solo lifters, groups had more endurance (that is, they could complete more reps) than individuals, which suggested to him that physically weaker lifters were more motivated in a group setting. 

People tend to work out harder or push themselves more when exercising with a friend or in a group, says Kitley. “When you know someone’s ‘in it’ with you, you don’t want to disappoint them versus making it easier to quit when you’re on your own,” she explains.

How to Find Your Squad

Whether you’re brand-new to structured exercise or a seasoned workout veteran ready for a new challenge, finding a fitness community can be just the thing you need to take one step closer to your goals. From local fitness clubs to online groups and more, there’s no shortage of options to find a fitness family. Here are a few places to look for your accountability crew. 

Francine Delgado-Lugo (left) & Morit Summers (right)

Look within your social circle.

Do you and your coworker always talk about wanting to take a dance class? Has a close friend of yours mentioned wanting to get more active? If you’re looking for an accountability buddy to partner with, there may very well be someone in your circle who also wants to commit to a new fitness routine, but needs some extra motivation as well. “Ask family members, co-workers, friends, and neighbors,” suggests Kitley. Having a plan already thought out, such as how often you want to work out and when, or a goal you’re looking to hit by a certain date, can also help get people on board since they know what they’re committing to, says Kitley.

Join an online community.

Thanks to the growing world of online fitness communities, your accountability buddy no longer needs to be an IRLneighbor. Apps such as FitBit allow you to post your progress to the community page, and connect with individuals on the app to partake in fitness challenges. For runners and cyclers, Strava allows you to search biking and running trails in your neighborhood that other users have recommended and make and connect with friends on the platform. Fitocracy gives you access to a virtual personal trainer that works with you to reach your individual goals. And over in the Shape Goal Crushers Facebook group, #ShapeSquad members support one another through any and all wellness struggles and celebrate all of the little (and big) wins of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. 

Overwhelmed by all the virtual options? “Reflect on things you’ve done in the past that you’ve either found success with or enjoyed,” says Owusu. These might be sports you played when you were a kid, recreational activities, or past fitness classes you’ve liked. From there, you can narrow down your search to online accountability options that will work for your preferences. 

“The key is to make it something enjoyable with the understanding that movement is an investment into your health and wellness,” says Southall.

Find a run — or walk — club.

Whether you want to train for a 5K or get out and explore your own backyard, chances are there’s a local Meetup or Facebook group of like-minded individuals who are doing just that. Take time to seek out options in your area. Groups such as Trail Dames, a hiking club for women of all sizes, and Black Girls Run!, an organization that empowers Black women to get active, operate in communities throughout the U.S. and may have a chapter near you. If not, consider starting your own. Not only will you get to create the exact movement experience you want, but you’ll also attract like-minded people in your area who have similar goals and interests (aka instant new friends).  

Page Nielsen (on back) & Sierra Nielsen

Sign up for a community-focused gym.

If you’re only using your gym or local fitness studio as a place to walk in, complete your workout, and walk right back out without talking to anyone — you might be missing out on a majorly supportive community. Evaluate the group fitness options available in your area, then spend some time on their social media pages to see what type of challenges and social events they offer. Popular community-based gyms such as CrossFit and Orangetheory Fitness tend to offer fitness incentives and challenges among members that create a sense of team spirit — as well as fundraising and community efforts within the neighborhoods where they operate. 

Finding a Fitness Community Takes Time

If you don’t click right away with your newfound fitness family, it’s okay to “date around.” “Some groups you’ll click with really well, some others you’ll have lots in common with but it won’t feel quite right, and others won’t work at all,” says Wenndt. “But the only way to find your perfect match is to have the courage to try.”

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