How Social Should Exercise Be? Finding Your Physio-Social Orientation

In my opinion, the most under-discussed area of fitness is the intersection between one’s social life, and one’s health and fitness habits.  I’ve written previously about how your social life can affect your health and fitness habits; today I want to look at this subject from the opposite angle.

To whit: how much of a social activity should exercise be?  Should it be a solitary endeavor, a group activity, or somewhere in between?  

Obviously that’s going to depend on the individual– and I think it’s an important thing to consider.  Most people dispensing fitness advice either don’t think about this, or assume that everyone is like themselves.  Because everyone prefers group classes over lifting weights alone, right?  Ugh.  

I’ve taken a different approach: I’ve developed a scale for measuring how outgoing you are when you’re exercising.  It’s based on the famous Kinsey scale of sexual orientation– a seven-point scale, in this case with one being the most introverted and seven being the most extroverted.    

Knowing where you fall on this scale can help you choose a mode of exercise that will be enjoyable and motivating for you.  Take a look and decide which of these describes you best:

One: You like to be completely alone when you’re exercising.  You don’t want to say a single word to anyone, hell you don’t even want to make eye contact.

People in this group might prefer to work out alone, but being introverted doesn’t change the fact that gyms have equipment you don’t have at home, or that you may have trouble getting in the headspace to work out at home.  

If you do go to the gym, you’ll probably want to wear some headphones and position yourself facing a wall so you can shut out other people in the gym.

Two: Predominantly but not exclusively asocial when working.  You don’t want to be “with” anyone when you’re exercising, but you wouldn’t mind exchanging a few words with people.  

If you’re in this group, you should go to the gym alone, but unlike people in the last group you probably don’t need to make an active effort to shut other people out.  You can listen to music if you want to, of course, but you’ll probably be doing it because you like the music, rather than to help you ignore other people.  

Alternatively, you may want to shut other people out during your workout, but not mind talking to people after your workout.  In that case maybe you act like people in group one except you hit the sauna afterward and talk to people a bit.

Three: Mostly a loner but somewhat social.  If you’re in this group, you like to socialize a bit, but not all the time.

People in this group like to socialize but don’t like to have to commit to it, or make it an obligation.  If you’re in this group, your best bet is probably going to be to work out alone, but say hello to people here and there.  

The difference with the last group is, whereas a two would simply work out alone and be okay with other people saying hit to them, a three would benefit from making an active effort to reach out to others once in a while.  If you’re benching, asking someone to spot you is a good way to do this.

Four: Intermittently social.  You like to work out with someone else, but don’t need to.

At this level, you’d prefer to not work out alone, but you don’t hate working out alone.  Maybe you even do enjoy working out alone once in a while, if you’re stressed out or tired; it’s just not what you usually want.

People in this group will usually be happiest having a workout partner who they train with 2-3 days a week, but not being totally dependent on that person.  In other words, train with your partner when they’re available, train alone when they’re not.

People in this group still don’t really prefer group classes, but probably don’t hate them either.  From a motivational standpoint, they also can benefit from seeing a trainer once or twice a week, or possibly working with an online trainer.

Five: You very strongly prefer working out with a partner, to the point where you hate working out alone.

At this level, you should have a workout buddy; you’ll want to be training with someone else pretty much every time.  In fact, you should probably have 2-3 friends you work out with so someone is always available.

That said, you do need to be able to force yourself to work out alone when nobody is able to work out with you.  At this level you probably are kay with group classes, even if you prefer being with just one or two friends rather than a bunch of strangers.  If your workout partners are unavailable, group classes can be a good backup plan, and you should attend a gym that has a few group classes included in the cost of the group membership.

People in this group also benefit a lot from having a trainer, and from seeing that trainer frequently.  That can get expensive of course; the best option for many is an online trainer who is willing to exchange messages on a daily or near-daily basis.  

Six: You prefer group settings, but with limited interaction.

People at this level really like group classes.  However, at this point I want to distinguish between two types of group settings: those where students interact with each other directly, and those where they all just do their own thing, albeit in a shared space.  Sixes prefer the second kind of group class.

Examples of group classes with limited interaction include Zumba, spin, yoga and pilates classes, and some Crossfit classes.  

Seven: You prefer group settings with a large amount of direct interaction with other people.

Examples of this include team sports, martial arts classes, Crossfit classes with more hands-on instructors, and boxing (actual boxing, not “cardio boxing” where you just punch the air)

As a side note, I think this is the real reason Crossfit is so popular: it lets sixes and sevens lift heavy weights in a group setting.  

In assessing which group you fall into, you might find yourself split between two or three choices.  For the sake of this exercise, focus on how you are a) most of the time, b) when exercising purely for fitness and not necessarily for fun.

For instance, I consider myself a two.  I work out alone, prefer to be alone, and don’t make an effort to either socialize or avoid socialization.  I do enjoy team sports and martial arts classes, but I don’t do those primarily for fitness, and often don’t do them at all– I’ll go months in between sports leagues sometimes.  A two represents how I am when I’m going to the gym 4-5 days a week.  

As a final note, this isn’t about how extroverted you are overall, and you may find a sharp distinction between the two. Maybe you’re an introvert who wants pilates class to be their one social activity for the week.  Maybe you’re an extrovert who uses the gym as their “me time.”  Assume nothing and really think about what you want, in terms of human interaction, when you’re exercising.  

The real question here is, how social do you want to be when you’re working out?  Answer that and plan your workouts accordingly.  Working out is a lot more fun when you’re not forcing yourself to do something that doesn’t fit your personality.