The link between social interaction and mental health
At Ad-Lib Training we are always expressing how physical activity can help improve your mental health, but I have begun to notice how social interaction plays just as important part in the overall picture.
As well as Directing Ad-Lib Training, I enjoy running Nordic walks in my community, to continue practicing what we preach! We walk on average 12 times per week and have a variety of sessions for all fitness abilities. When individuals first come to walk with me, they usually have a clear idea of what they want to get out of attending. The 5 most common reasons are:
Weight management (losing, maintaining or gaining).
They attend for health reasons, perhaps they have been poorly, or they have seen others in their family or peer group whose health has declined.
They are getting older and know they should be doing something.
They have possibly been advised by a health professional.
They may have a specific goal or event coming up.
What I find interesting is when my members first start participating in group exercise social interaction is often not a primary motivation, however, on a regular basis they become extremely reliant on the social aspect of participating in regular activity. They have joined for the reasons listed above. It is obviously important I regularly check they are getting what they signed up for, however, from their responses it is clear their original primary motivation can soon become secondary and what they are getting more than anything else is the social benefits of regular attendance. If they miss a period of time for whatever reason, they will often say how they have missed the company and support they get from the group.
I have been in the fitness industry for many years and the importance of client retention has often been the focus at many events. The customer experience is key, the intervention of staff, the environment and results have all focused heavily on how to keep people coming.
What I am finding is that it is important to my walks to plan in social interaction as part of the session. I will sacrifice a few squats for member chat and banter time. Leisure Centre operators encourage their staff to interact with the customers and will sometimes plan special events. I believe more is needed to plan client social interaction as part of the exercise session.
It is possible in any session to plan time for encouraging social networks.
More and more we are learning the importance of mental health and how our lives are affecting our stress and anxiety levels. Within my sessions I witness on a daily basis how strong friendships are being developed. Levels of trust amongst members are clearly forming. My members are opening up to one another, sharing their feelings in a safe environment. I cannot supply that level of support alone, but I can create a platform and an environment where my members can feel part of a group and know they are part of a caring community.
From the outset we have always created activities within every session which involves mixing people up, even if it is only for a short period. The result is meeting new people and expanding social networks.
In the beginning of my career as a naive exercise instructor, I would have worried if the most powerful feedback I had received related to how much my members got from other clients more than the programme I had designed for them. But older and wiser, I realise retention comes from the mental support network I have created. If there is any advice I can give to a new instructor, this would be it.