Community: The Real Fitness X-Factor

As paradoxical as it sounds, community is the key to creating individual health changes. Regardless of your goals, the answer is simple: create community around your health and fitness.

Photo by Bev Childress

Photo by Bev Childress

No shortage of fitness and nutrition advice circulates today. Nearly everywhere you look, there is a new diet or revolutionary new fitness regime. Claims abound about foods that annihilate fat like heat-seeking missiles and secret ten-second exercises that increase your metabolism by over 300% (this outlandish claim is actually selling programs).

Everyone seeks that effortless solution to shred fat but allow them to eat whatever they want. There is a reason the term “fitness fad” has come into vogue. These flashy gimmicks come and go as they prove themselves unsustainable, ineffective, or just bizarre (did we really expect the Shake Weight to be the answer?).

Even the scientific community sometimes feels confusion. A recent study about the breakthrough research behind “energy flux” found that the body’s energy demand (read calories burned) remains practically equal regardless of how much we move.1

Those who sit and eat all day process about the same daily calories as someone exercising like mad, except that they store those calories as fat rather than using them. It also appears that some may benefit from the “energy flux loophole” whereby more exercise and more food increases their metabolism, making them leaner. More research is needed in this area. This study, by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, only measured teens, an age demographic that can experience radical shifts in metabolism.

Start with What You’ll Do

This might be confusing and leave us unsure of the implications. As interesting as the energy flux concept is, it does not yet prove anything new. Nutrition matters more than exercise for weight loss. Yet, even if weight loss was only affected by nutrition, exercise is still essential to long-term physical and mental health.

The take-home message is, and has always been, to create lifestyle habits that promote long-term health. Counting calories proves ineffective, particularly when we consider how nutrient-deficient many low-calorie foods can be, and our tendency to quit counting as motivation wanes and life grows hectic. Rather than pretending to have a clue about our basal metabolic rate, we simply need to find healthy foods that we like to substitute for poorer choices. Similarly, while different exercise methods might suit our individual needs, it is most important to move more and sit less. Sure, a balance of strength, cardio, flexibility, and stability is ideal, but in nutrition and exercise, just start with what you’ll do.

So, What Will You Do?

If you are short on time and equipment, there is a workout plan for that. If you prefer to exercise outside, or with a lot of variety, or with heavy weights, or with lots of stretching, or with games, or with anything else, there are plans for those too. Most likely, however, you prefer to work out and eat with friends.

Breaking Muscle’s own Pete Hitzeman accurately pinpointed the only variable that matters for training, nutrition, and any goal: consistency, or what you do for the long haul. However, there is often more to being consistent. We all have the power to change, but willpower alone simply does not prove an effective strategy for most.

Community: The Real X-Factor

A drive for community is at the root of most of our actions. As paradoxical as it sounds, community is the key to creating individual health changes. We are social creatures that adopt the patterns of our environment. Regardless of your goals, the answer is simple: for long-term success, create community around your health and fitness.

Author Neil Strauss explains what finding a healthy community has meant for him personally:

Before, I’d go to the gym to achieve a certain weight or muscle goal, and I never stuck with it. Now I show up to see my friends, and we always exercise outdoors: at the beach, in a pool, on a lawn… It’s the highlight of the day. I have no outcome I want from it, and I’ve never been in better shape in my life. It helped me realize that the secret to change and growth is not willpower, but positive community.

Strauss does not say anything groundbreaking yet he profoundly articulates the solution to our poor health epidemic. Lack of community and connection drives poor mental health. Healthy communities most influence the actions necessary for physical health. Nothing we do for ourselves is more important than creating communities of people who earnestly share a desire to realize health and balance.

Community is not only the most sustainable path, but it is a necessity for health. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found social connection to correlate to a 50 percent reduction in the risk for early death. She concludes that, in regards to health toll, chronic loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.2 As we all know, social media and growing populations do not alleviate loneliness. Social bonds rely on physical presence, experience, and authenticity.

Creating Your Own Healthy Communities

Adult community and connection are the struggles of our time. As one client recently asked me, “How the heck to do you make friends now?” We go to school with similarly-aged, like-minded peers, only to move on to the land of cubicles. We enter the “real world” and are met with social alienation. No one invites us to play racquetball. There are no intramural sports and no readily apparent hiking clubs.

We need connection and will find it one way or another. Many fill the void with drinking buddies. Adult softball leagues become the only exercise many people get, as they drink beer and laugh about how far their bodies have slipped. Community, however rare, becomes centered around the new realities of lethargy and immobility, as many social forces seem intent to dissuade health.

The answer is you, the individual. Take steps to find the fitness community that you know you need. Start a group or try out something new. Maybe there is an awesome kettlebell gym or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio in town. For physical and mental health, social connection is the answer.

This can be scary. Daniel Coyle’s phenomenal new book, The Culture Code shows that deeper connection requires vulnerability. We have to risk failing and being “the new person.” We have to risk rejection or feeling awkward in a new group. Health happens when you roll the dice and live. With a little grit, we can all create the physically and socially nourishing communities we need to thrive.


1. David John Hume, Sonja Yokum, Eric Stice; Low energy intake plus low energy expenditure (low energy flux), not energy surfeit, predicts future body fat gain, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 103, Issue 6, 1 June 2016, Pages 1389-1396

2. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316