Being cheered on makes us fitter – but why?

Wondering whether you should bring your housemates to cheer you on at Parkrun? Turns out having someone cheering you on (however embarrassingly) really will make you run faster.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, the Couch to 5K app was downloaded around 5 million times. The pandemic forced many of us out of the gym and onto the roads, canals and park pathways as we scrambled for a new way of exercising, and Couch to 5K offered many of us new runners with what we needed.

As well as providing a comprehensive two-month programme, the app encourages its users with ‘personal trainers’ who provide positive affirmations to runners-in-training; celebrities such as Jo Whiley will tell runners they are “the champions of the world” in the last 60 seconds of their run to urge people to keep going when they may be starting to falter.

It’s not just marathon runners or sports teams that benefit from cheering crowds. As well as making us feel like we really can shave those extra seconds off our best time, there’s a bona fide scientific reason why even just one positive voice of encouragement makes all the difference to your workout. 

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Being cheered on can make running less painful

“There are a number of factors at play that can benefit us when we are cheered on by fans, supporters and even strangers,” Lee Chambers, psychologist and wellbeing consultant,  explains. “When we are smiled at or cheered, it is associated with positive approval and happiness.

“It is also beneficial, as being in front of a crowd can be a threatening and vulnerable place to be, and recognition of encouraging and positive facial expressions can make it feel less threatening and transmit a level of excitement that can boost your performance.”

The shot of adrenaline we receive when being cheered on is similar to that when we see a finish line, and can force us to keep going when energies are starting to dip, Chambers continues. “It also has the ability to reduce feelings of pain and give you a positive surge that changes your mood and how you feel physically.”

Having fit friends makes us fitter and happier about doing fitness

It’s not just being cheered on by passive bystanders watching on the side-lines that motivates us. Exercising as part of a group, or team, is thought to provide further support and benefits when compared to exercising alone. 

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social Sciences found that participants gravitate towards the exercise behaviours of those around them, with those closer to more athletic companions finding themselves doing more exercise. 

The driving factor behind this is likely to be part of ‘social comparison theory’, a concept first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. The theory suggests that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves, often in comparison to others. According to Festinger, we engage in this comparison process as a means of establishing a benchmark by which we can make accurate evaluations of ourselves. 

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Comparing our personal bests to those of others also motivates us when it comes to workouts. We seemingly enjoy using the company of others to reinvigorate our exercise regimes. When restrictions started to lift earlier this year, a number of people turned to group activities to keep fit. 

The Run Club, which was started by the PureSport fitness community in March this year, has seen attendance rocket by 700%, with over 100 people attending every week in Battersea Park. Its participants have found running together as part of a collective has improved their times and motivated them to keep attending.

“I have felt like I am a part of something really special, being surrounded by like-minded motivated people who just enjoy getting outside and moving,” Lucy, 24, explains. “It really is the highlight of my week.”

Tara, 25, adds: “I absolutely loved Run Club from the first one I turned up to. I instantly felt part of a community. I actually look forward to seeing everyone on a Wednesday and while having fun, I’ve managed to knock two minutes off my 5K time.”

Train together, train harder

“When you train with others, you automatically work that little bit harder,” Lucy Gornall, head of wellness at PureSport explains. “Think about it; you don’t want to be the weakest in the group, so you might just push yourself to do more reps, increase your bike resistance in a spin class or speed up your run in a run group.

“Not only do you want to perform your best, but the encouragement of others can also spur you on to work harder. All this encouragement and adrenaline is a great way to get the most out of your workouts!

“Our increase in numbers is very much down to people bringing their friends, but also friends giving people the accountability to show up.” 

Rachael Penrose, trainer at F45 Training, agrees that external forces encouraging you to do your best can be essential to reach beyond personal bests.

“Picture yourself in a negative environment where there is no support, no external motivation; you can feel the energy draining out of you,” she says. “Now think of a time where you have had people around you, shouting your praise or showering you with positive reinforcement.

“It becomes a much more motivating atmosphere to be around and instead of feeling drained and exhausted, the adrenaline kicks in and the thrill to complete the task at hand. Whether it be a workout buddy, or a pre-planned group workout, having that external motivation can make all the difference.” 

It’s natural to want to work out with other people

It’s the bonds we form with others while we workout which is a “fundamental psychological factor” in why we prefer to work out with others, according to Chambers.

“The bonds we create while training together can enhance our exercise ability and foster healthy competition, which is a strong motivator both in the moment and in the longer term,” he explains.

“These aspects of socialising and collaborating give us a sense of belonging and the supportive, encouraging feeling of sharing a space for a common purpose and similar goals. This can increase the value and expectancy of what we get from partaking in these activities, dampen our impulsivity and keep us accountable to more than just ourselves.” 

You don’t need a cheer squad – just knowing that people want us to succeed is enough

Of course, we can’t always rally a crowd to cheer us on or run with us every time we want to do a 5K or lift that slightly heavier weight. But even knowing that there’s a community to hold you accountable for your workouts is beneficial, Chambers says.

“Consider community even when you are alone, and think about a group you can talk to and share with outside of the exercise itself, whether in person or online. Just knowing they are available can be a boost.

“Writing or logging your workouts is a valuable way of referencing where you are currently at, and gives you space to reflect on what is possible and the options you have. For some people, mantras work well, and some I’ve heard used effectively are ‘bring it on’ and ‘obstacles make me stronger’, but it needs to be meaningful to you. 

“Finally, make it rewarding with something tangible that doesn’t conflict with your overall aims and ambitions, and redefine the word treat as something that motivates and boosts you towards your vision of achievement and fulfilment.” 

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Chambers adds that understanding what truly motivates you as your exercise will be what ultimately see you get the results you want to see from your workouts: “Having an understanding of the drivers behind your behaviours is certainly something that can be utilised productively with increased awareness,” he says.

“We are all individual, and understanding the deeper reasons behind why you do what you do opens up a whole world where you can consider ownership over what you can control to move towards your desired outcomes. It can also help you to start to identify triggers that become obstacles and barriers, external support that is beneficial and to create a plan and prepare with your motivators in mind.” 

Want to be part of a supportive community? Join the Strong Women Training Club today.

Images: Getty

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