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Animal Group Exercise

I have been reading an excellent article in the New Scientist* about animal emotion and I wondered how this insight could be applied to humans and exercise.

When he talks of emotions, he means bodily and mental states that science can recognise through their effects on behaviour and physiology. A number of animal species have shown evidence that they enjoy mental challenges, that like humans, may cause them to enter a 'flow-state' when deeply immersed in the activity.

I think we can all think of examples where we have seen a pet or wild creature seemingly doing something for the sake of doing it, rather than displaying an obvious evolutionary reason for the behaviour. Welfare groups are always looking for ways to improve the experience of animals in zoos and farms. Giving creatures more choice would in theory improve cognitive abilities, problem solving and help animals handle stress much better. Fay Clark at the University of Bristol suggests that the challenge would be to find the sweet spot between too easy and too difficult.

How can we apply this idea to humans and exercise?

The notions of choice, realistic challenge and play are all aspects of the Self-Determination Theory in human psychology. These are all also key factors in making an exercise experience more engaging, helping participants to achieve a flow state. Instructors can cater for different people by giving options, although I think it is essential that these choices are framed as unique personal decisions rather than as a less valued proposition-

Not -

'march if you cannot run'

Instead -

'march is an alternative to running'

But how much is too much challenge?

Class programming can cause you to lose participants because of both too little or too greater physical difficulty or complexity. I remember attending a Step class for the first time, where the instructor didn't speak other than to shout out numbers. These numbers corresponded with step routines that all of the rest of the class knew by heart! That is probably a good example of difficulty being set too high, causing me not to return.

The final element from the New Scientist article about animal emotion is the notion of fun. Evidence abounds of creatures doing things for fun. Octopuses have been seen to spray water at one enough for no reason. They seem to enjoy taking the lid off jars, even when they repeatedly find the jar empty. In our attempts to make group-exercise safe, challenging and stylish, it is easy to lose sight of the fun element. This is problematic when one considers the science of group activity.

Individuals will enjoy group activity more if they feel they have things in common with the other participants, with humour and joyfulness being a great way of fostering these relationships between strangers. I have seen time-and-time again how confident instructors are able to bring people together, in particular those who can project positive energy into a silent room at the class arrival time!

One of the many things we can learn from animals is that flow-state can be achieved using choice, challenge and fun.

I now can't get the idea of Dog Aerobics out of my head!

*Sam Wong- New Scientist- August 2023

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