Group Exercise: Finding Friendship in Fitness

By Dawn Medley

Their weekly AquaFit class started about 10 minutes ago at the STAUNTON-AUGUSTA FAMILY YMCA, but two participants float off to the side of the main group.

The gray-haired members are talking intently, and not following the instructor’s directions very closely. But what they are doing may be just as important for their health.

They are connecting.

Physical exercise and youth programs have long been the primary motivation for new memberships at the Y, but many patrons discover after their first few visits that the social aspect becomes an equal draw.

“It is a benefit that I wasn’t expecting,” said AquaFit attendee Donna Mattejat, who joined in February 2022 purely as a way to add physical activity to her routine and foster her love of working out in the water. “They were already a tight group, but they were still so welcoming to me. A year later, I can really say that I’m part of that network; I thoroughly enjoy making time to spend time with them outside of classes,” she added.

As one of the longtime AquaFit members who eagerly invited Mattajat into the fold, Brenda Fisher agrees that the class has “a special bond.”

That fellowship extends to Fisher’s special-needs granddaughter, who has gotten to know the group when she accompanies her to the pool and social meet-ups.

“We feel like an extended family,” said Fisher. “We look after each other, make each other laugh, and even let each other vent and get things off our chest when we need to.”

The close-knit relationship of the AquaFit class and others like it is due in no small part to the encouragement of their instructors, who often recognize that members need each other as much as they need the scheduled activity.

“We started going out about 5-10 years ago as a way of celebrating birthdays – which we still do, of course,” said Carol Byrd, AquaFit instructor and Active Older Adults Coordinator. “I could just tell that they were looking for a way to have more interaction, especially those people who might not get out a lot otherwise,” she added.

According to a 2021 Washington Post article, group fitness has rebounded since the Covid-19 pandemic, with about 40 percent of regular exercisers reporting that they participate in group classes. Exercising with others satisfies some basic psychological needs, explained the authors, psychology and kinesiology professors at Iowa State University. They go on to contend that group exercise can increase feelings of mastery and confidence – be it spinning, Zumba, aerobics, or another specific activity.

People naturally choose to keep up fulfilling behaviors in the long term and they promote mental health, creating what the researchers dubbed “a win-win environment.”

In fact, the pandemic solidified a strong connection between members of at least one specific weekly fitness class at the SAYMCA.

When Helen Geiger joined the Y, doors weren’t even open for classes. She became a member at the urging of her father in an effort to support the organization while the facility was temporarily shuttered to help stem the spread of illness. When classes resumed, cycling with Group Fitness Instructor Sarabeth Johnson was one of the first activities that Geiger tried. The camaraderie clicked immediately.

“It was so helpful to have the interaction, because it was kind of one of my only social things at that time,” she said. “They were pretty much the only group of people I was seeing regularly.”

Johnson would occasionally mention the idea of going out as a group after the evening class when things opened up more. As soon as participants were comfortable and local restaurants reopened their dining rooms, many cycling class members did just that, usually heading downtown to Baja Bean Co. to unwind.

The class gathers about once a month these days to mark birthdays and other milestones. The group has fielded a trivia team to raise funds for the YMCA, and karaoke and dancing are on Johnson’s “wishlist” of class extracurricular activities.

“It’s a great group – they push each other to work hard, and encourage each other to have fun, too,” Johnson said.

Back in the pool, the pair of AquaFit participants are eventually drawn back into the group by the instructor’s movements and stories, local news updates, and reminders about the next get-together.

On this particular day, their friendship needed as much attention as their bodies, and that’s more than just okay.