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Exercising together brings us closer to one another, while exercising with those close to us improves our performance. Those are the conclusions of an Oxford University study published this Friday in the journal PLoS ONE.

 Photo credit: Shutterstock

Emma Cohen, Arran Davis and Jacob Taylor, from the University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, carried out two experiments to look at how group exercise and social cohesion influence one another.

Lead author Dr Emma Cohen said, 'The physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of exercise are increasingly understood, but participants often report experiencing meaningful social benefits when they exercise together with others, whether they are dancing in a ceilidh or running in an urban marathon. Anthropologists, too, have long speculated on the importance of group movement and exercise, in various forms, for social cohesion across different cultures. Now we are beginning to identify the unique psychological mechanisms responsible for these important social effects.'

The first experiment tested whether moderately intense group exercise causes strangers to bond more than low intensity exercise. Using side-by-side ergometers (rowing machines), participants rowed in groups of three at either a low or moderate intensity. The study found that participants who rowed at a moderate intensity cooperated more with one another in a post-exercise economic game than participants who rowed at a low intensity.

The researchers suggest that unique psychological effects of moderate intensity exercise may be responsible. Other studies have shown that moderate intensity exercise increases activity in the body's pain relief and reward systems. Activity in the endorphin and endocannabinoid systems specifically has been linked to feelings of pleasure, well-being, and self-transcendence, extreme forms of which are popularly known as the 'runner’s high'.

Read more on the University website (opens new window)