How a simple online group can transform your relationship to working out

I heard a piece on CBC Wednesday morning about how “most people” give up their new year’s resolutions about working out by February. Leaving aside the whole question of whether resolutions are actually a good way to form new habits (spoiler: not really), it did make me reflect again on how grateful I am for the motivation of my “220 in 2020” community. This is a facebook community that includes Sam, Catherine, Susan, Tracy, Bettina and Martha among the core posters to this blog, and Renee, Laura and many other guest posters. I’ve written many times about this group since it was “217 in 2017” as a profound motivator in my own relationship with working out; yesterday, I asked other members of the group what the value is for them.

(Quick sidebar: there are actually two facebook groups, one mixed group that started in 2016, and a feminist version that is mostly women that started last year after Tracy, Christine and I facilitated a daily motivation group for three months. Both have open membership. The original group has about 200 members to about 100 in the other,  with not all in either actively posting at any given time.  The main goal is to support members to reach a set number of workouts, however they define a workout, in a year. (The feminist group adds a simple little goal of smashing the patriarchy). We join the group, we post our workouts with the number, that’s it. People witness our experience and sometimes cheer us on. Simple simple).

I expected people to have something positive to say about their group experiences — but what I didn’t expect was the moving sense of how emotional and transformative it’s been for so many people.  Participating in this group is about accountability, the fun of counting and shared encouragement — but more than that, for many people, it’s created community out of isolation, inspired them to be creative, and most importantly, given them a sense of autonomy and value over movement however it is meaningful to them.

As a blog community, we’ve done many posts on “what counts” as a workout, which we boil down to “whatever you personally consider an episode of movement.” This is an essential aspect of the mission of this group. Jason Breen, a personal trainer and philosopher who started the first group, captures it beautifully: “I think that the fitness industry does a lot of gatekeeping about what counts as exercise.  At one point it was jazzercise and now it’s warrior challenges. These gates keep a lot of people from moving more. I wanted to remove the gates as much as I could.

Recognizing all types of movement as meaningful is very powerful for people. One member said “I’m a compulsive exerciser so it’s therapeutic for me to see how other people make time to move their bodies and what the range of “normal” exercise is.”  Another said  “I am a perfectionist and tend to downplay my achievements. This group is helping me to acknowledge the things I actually do and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  I hang around with a lot of serious triathletes and can get in a mode of only being critical of myself. Then I only count “serious” workouts and will skip shorter ones because they “aren’t enough–I’ll just wait until I can get a full hour in.” I end up moving less, getting more stiff and sore and start to lose the fun.”  One participant added “I did not post even once in 2017, and just observed for an entire year. And even then, it helped me acknowledge for myself whenever I “worked out”, that I had done something. I occasionally managed to boulder or go to yoga, and i eventually made it to the equivalent Mom and baby classes.

This recognition is transformative for people.  “When I joined, I was still very much in the headspace that exercise was only for weight loss and I was frustrated that I wasn’t losing weight with the exercise that I did do. I was also snobby about what constituted a workout and was surprised with what movement “counted” in this group. Over the course of 2019 I began to embrace movement for the sake of movement. I quickly understood the motivational benefits of counting everything from physio to a CrossFit WOD.”  Another said simply, “This group supports the mindfulness of integrating activity into every day for me.”   

The process of simple counting without squabbling about whether something “should” count is very freeing. Sometimes it’s straightforward:  “seeing workouts listed in my feed encourages me to “keep up.“”  For others, it’s transformative:“I  found having a process goal (making movement a part of my life regularly) with a clear, simple measurement helped me get over the attitude that I had to do a “real” workout (eg train for a race, complete a certain “challenge”) to get benefit. Having the goal nudged me to do something (even small/imperfect) on days I likely otherwise would have done nothing physical.”  Another said, “on a very practical level, I’ve actually started tracking my workouts which is something I’ve done in a very ad hoc, intermittent way in the past. Tracking helps me plan my workouts in terms of what days I can work out and what workouts I should do.”  Daily tracking keeps people coming back:  “I know that I will get sick, or my kids will. I know that there will be days or weeks where I can’t work out at all. But I also know how amazing it feels to break 50 or 100 or 200. And how amazing it feels to choose movement. This group helps me do it.”  Another said, “I also like the accountability aspect–I have often done SOMETHING just to have something to report.”

Another person captured the way the accountability brings together their hopes for working out—“I move my body because it makes me feel good, because I want to age well, because it is good for my joints and for my mental health” with action “let’s be real – I move because I want to have a workout to post :).”

For many of the people in this group, their relationship to goal setting has changed because the simple count is not rigid or competitive.  “I’ve always been averse to goal setting since I hated the thought of failure being only possible if I set up a situation where I was trying to achieve something. Which really sounds way too ridiculous to even explain properly. But just keeping a count has been a doable way to get more consistently active, whether that’s a session at the gym or a really big hilly walk home from work.…  

Choosing movement is partly about the counting, but it’s also about the sense of shared support.  The community is a very powerful part of the transformation.  One person said “This group has helped me remember that I want to bring more movement into my life, not just “real” or “serious”. I also want others to count everything, so I have to do the same, which makes me move more and feel better. I have to be gentler with myself, because I want to be gentle with others.  Another person said, “one of the things I get most is that because I want to be supportive of others, it makes me more supportive of myself.”

Before these groups, many people felt isolated in their relationship with their bodies or movement, but now there is a sense of supportive community, and of “witnessing” each other’s experience.  “Through the regular posts I feel I’m getting a peek into participants’ lives and this makes me want everyone to succeed—however success is defined. Otherwise, I’m in a very private, weird little world of my own.”  Another said “Oh my god. Where to begin. This group has been transformative for me. I joined in 2017 not knowing really what it was about and not really getting into it. That changed in 2018 – I totally bought in. The group helped keep me accountable. Gave me an outlet to share my feelings and find community in what is otherwise an isolated world for me.”

For many people, even when they are not working out, this sense of community still feels important.  “Like some others, I’m not able to work out as much right now, so I’m a bit disheartened by the amount of exercise some people are doing in contrast to my own track record so far. But at the same time, I also see that others have similar struggles with being sick, not having time, etc. and everyone is encouraging about that, so it’s not bothering me as much as it would if it were a different crowd of people.

Seeing each other’s experience is an important part of this.  One person said “between motivation, support, and being in awe of others activities and aware of some struggles and so forth, it’s a good community for me that feels non-competitive and like-minded.”  Another said “it inspires me to see all these folks who are probably just as busy and tired as I am making exercise a priority anyway, and working it into their daily lives.”

One of the important aspects of the community is the space for vulnerability and honesty.  Jason, the founder, talked about how much he appreciates the authenticity of the group.  “The group has been a place where people feel safe to complain about the goal and share their vulnerabilities. I have tried to role model some of this but we have a great supportive culture and this is more than I could have hoped for. One of my favourite questions is, “does doing my physio count”. Darn right, it counts. You can’t build a strong house on a shaky foundation and doing your physio keeps you moving during those times of setback due to injury.”

The group expands the frequency of activity, but also the range of what people do People talk about how much they LOVE hearing about what other people do — bouldering!  aerial gymnastics and circus training!  axe throwing! motorcycle riding! fox hunting!  and how this has inspired them to be more creative in their own movement.  Jason commented that it’s been interesting to see how “some trends, such as using a new bit of tech or following a program online, have created points of commonality among the members.”  The biggest community bandwagon has been Yoga with Adriene, with at least 20 of the members doing the January 30 day Home program. (And, true to the group ethos, some did one per day for 30 days, and others are still intermittently working their way through the sequence.)

In short, the group has been transformative.  For many people. One said, “my attitude toward movement changed completely.  I have completely let go of my association between exercise and weight loss. I have changed so much that this January I recorded at least one workout every day for the whole month. I felt great. I kept showing up. I cared zero percent about the scale. This group has changed both my movement patterns and my attitude and hoo boy am I grateful for it.”

That gratitude is palpable.  I’ll close this long post with the words from another stalwart member — my personal favourite cheerleader — said “it’s invigorated me to keep going and helped me push through a really tough 2019 in terms of activity – my knee injury got me totally depressed but being accountable to the number 219 made me push through and find ways to keep going. In 2020 it encouraged me to go for more and try something I never would have thought of – 30 straight days of yoga. And I did it and I was proud and y’all shared your love and support. In many ways you are all strangers to me but I’ve found a real sense of being in this together. I look forward to seeing your posts and you sharing in my posts. Okay now I’m rambling….but the sentiment should be clear!

Both groups are still open — or, you could start your own!

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is on workout #46 so far for 2020.

One thought on “How a simple online group can transform your relationship to working out

  1. YES! Reading about other people’s stories is so inspiring. Every time you see someone else working out and seeing improvements, you want to experience the same. There is such thing as being burnt out, but it’s just a matter of looking through these groups long enough and having access to the posts. Additionally, I find that groups are more effective if they are more active as well–you are absolutely right in that people often felt isolated in their routines and it was hard to find them to connect with people in a different way!

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