Fitness communities can help you get stronger, faster and fitter, but they can help your sense of belonging even more.
Online workouts may have taken hold during lockdown, but new research shows that we couldn’t wait to be back with our workout buddies in real life. During the first week that fitness classes were back in England, ClassPass, the class booking service, recorded a 600% increase in the number of new members.
While there’s study after study that shows how beneficial it is to train with a friend, from making you train harder and garner more results to reducing stress, perhaps the love of fitness classes is about being part of something bigger: a community.
Fitness communities have flourished over the past year, both virtually and, when allowed, in-person. From running clubs to close knit views on Instagram Lives, these communities aren’t just about having a friend who supports you when you walk into the gym – they’re about about a feeling of belonging and a source of motivation.
“A gym buddy is useful for sure, but for some people the gym time is ‘you’ time or maybe you can’t align your schedules with someone,” says Emma Obayuvana, a fitness trainer and member of the Strong Women Collective. “However, going to a class or being part of a bigger community can drive you. Being around people who think exercising is a chore, or equally that exercise is their everything, will definitely affect you and will not make being fit as fun as it should be.”
For Pennie Varvarides, a strength and conditioning coach and ex-journalist, removing herself from the environments that she didn’t want to be part of, and replacing that with a more supportive community was her way to enjoy fitness. “Partly it was about me just no longer being friends with people who decided that if I didn’t want to go to a party, then we’d stop talking. Then, when I became a PT, I started being friends with other PTs and then all of a sudden I had friends who actually like doing exercise, which was really helpful. I think without the accountability, it becomes incredibly difficult to make change,” she says.
This has been a real awakening for me. As someone who doesn’t enjoy team sports, exercise has always been a solitary experience. But last year I made a group of friends who train at the same gym, and that has extended to knowing the staff, to texting and supporting each other outside of our workouts too. I still get a better training session when I walk into the gym on my own, but when I want to join a class or have a confidence boost, they’re there. Knowing that I have friends who I can talk to and say ‘this exercise doesn’t feel quite right’ or ‘I can’t be bothered, please can you tell me what to do?’ or simply laugh about something that happened on the gym floor makes the whole experience nicer.
It also feels less daunting. I may have been training in the weights room for years, but, as a woman, gymtimidation never truly leaves you. Sure, communities are important for finding people to give you tips on form or hitting a goal, but community is even more important when it comes to mindset and strength, particularly for women.
“If you’ve always been told the story that women can’t be strong or that women shouldn’t lift and then you never meet any women who are strong or who lift, you don’t know that that’s something that you can do. If you don’t have your people, it makes it hard to know what you’re capable of,” says Pennie.
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For me, being part of a community also taught me to be a better ally, too. As women are so often taught to be competitive with each other, I spent the first few years of my fitness journey believing that exercise had to be my thing. I probably shot myself in the foot by not talking to or including my friends in my discussions around training as I wanted to be the fittest one and the strongest one.
Now, I train with Claudia, Charlotte, Jules and Vicky and I can cheerlead for them and support their goals in a way that is totally removed from my own success. Them squatting more or running faster than me is actually inspiring rather than annoying. It is an indicator of their success, not of my failing. After we finish up, we go and get a pizza and get on with the rest of our lives.
One woman who knows all about the empowerment of female communities is Lucy Mountain. The founder of nobs guides, the “workout guides without the bullshit”, she has built an online community based on the foundations of banishing diet culture from fitness. With the pressure on lockdown glow ups, Lucy is relieved to have a place where she can turn when she feels frustrated: “Having my own community in the team nobs Facebook group of predominantly women has been a real place of support in a time like this.”
However, social media has not always been a place where Lucy has felt comfortable. “Instagram is both a blessing and a curse. When used effectively, it could be the thing which helps you give less f*cks about the pressures of chasing a socially-constructed ‘summer body’. But it could also be the thing which makes you feel worse.”
The answer is to curate a feed which works for you. “Identify if the people you follow. Are they supporting your goals and are aligned with you? Find a bunch of people that really resonate with you and allow you to have a nice exercise/life balance,” says Emma. “I aim to curate my feed to show a diverse range of bodies, although there’s always work to be done on this,” agrees Lucy. “The sentiment from the people I follow with regards to their personal body image is always so positive.”
Positivity is the key when it comes to finding or creating a community. Leeanne Adu, a member of Run Dem Crew and a community captain for Backpackers running club, knows this all too well. “After having my daughter, when my body was recovering from major surgery, from all the things that pregnancy does to it, and from my postnatal depression, having backpackers there really positively impacted how I healed,” she says.
“I was completely broken in so many ways, and knowing that everybody who I had been nurturing over that year and a half before that was now there to nurture me was so nice. When I think about community, it’s not about hiring someone who leads. It’s about having a whole group of people who feel valued.”
“It can be scary to walk through the door of a new community. It’s like the first day at school, wondering ‘am I going to fit in? Are they going to like me? Am I going to be good enough?’. All of those insecurities come to the surface. But I don’t think you know any kind of love like crew love until you join a family that’s going to really look after you like that,” Leeanne adds.
How to find a fitness community
Strong Women Training Club
Our community on social is hugely important to us, but also to our trainers. “In the classes I teach as part of the Strong Women Training Club, I’ve met women who all support each other through the tough sessions. That community is so important to me,” Emma says.
For members, there’s also a private Facebook group where you can reach out to people who are on the plan and the coaches themselves, and on the Strong Women Instagram you’ll regularly find Live events and engaging content that will help you guide you through your training.
A fitness trainer
A trainer themselves can become your community, but if you find a coach like Pennie you’ll also become part of a wider group of friends. “I set up a WhatsApp group with my clients so everyone can talk to each other. They all hang out separately now and consider each other friends, training together or going for drinks. That’s probably one of the reasons why so many of my clients have been with me for years; it feels like a community of people who are cheering you on,” she says.
If the environment you train in is important, then so is the virtual environment in which you engage with fitness. Curating a supportive and positive feed is essential, and joining in with private Facebook groups or signing up to a closed community can help you in so many ways. Consider groups like Lucy’s team nobs, Shona Vertue’s Vertue Crew or any inspirational trainer’s plan.
If you know that you need support for a specific type of training, a quick google will easily find communities in that space. Some of the most supportive teams are running and CrossFit, but whether it’s joining a five-a-side football team or joining a WhatsApp group of women who like to swim, there will be something for you.
Make a new one
If you don’t know where to start, simply strike up a conversation with someone at the gym or on social media who seems to be into the same thing you’re into. It’s nerve wracking, sure, but I did it and I now feel like I have found my place.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).