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Columns: Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit

From Me to We: The Importance of Group Cohesion in Exercise Programs

Hathaway, Liz Ph.D., MPH; Gregg, Mckenzie MPH

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 11/12 2021 - Volume 25 - Issue 6 - p 48-50
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000713
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Alas, we felt it would have been false advertising to not include the latter part of the title as we did not want individuals to think this was a premarital counseling article. You know how we feel about our integrity, so transparency is key. Many of us can think back fondly to a group or team where we felt connected, and this connection helped us to achieve more than if we would have tried the pursuit alone. There is such wisdom in the old saying, “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.”

So hopefully, we do not have to do much persuading for why this is an important topic. One quick mention, that might be helpful, is for us to shift our thinking from the importance of group cohesion from just sports teams to also including exercise programs and classes as well. As we think about group cohesion in the exercise setting, it is important to differentiate between group dynamics–based (GDB) programs versus programs delivered to a group of people but do not use group interactions as a source of motivation (1). Further, Estabrooks et al. (1) explain that to be considered a GDB program, it should provide opportunities for group members to interact, include activities that enhance attractiveness of the group across members, and increase perceptions of group cohesion (p. 20). Why are we so focused on GDB programs? Because a 2006 meta-analysis authored by some of the big players in this field reported that exercising in GDB programs led to the best results (2). For our purposes in this article, we will focus on GDB programs and harnessing the power of our exercise groups.

Many of us can think back fondly to a group or team where we felt connected, and this connection helped us to achieve more than if we would have tried the pursuit alone. There is such wisdom in the old saying, “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.”

WHAT IS GROUP COHESION?

We must first meet Albert Carron, considered the father of group dynamics in sport and physical activity (1). Carron’s definition of cohesion is often cited as “a dynamic process which is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its goals and objectives” ((3), p. 124). Group cohesion is thought to be a multidimensional construct consisting of task and social components, as well as group integration and individual attraction components.

The multidimensional construct is commonly grouped as follows: (a) group integration—social (GI-S), closeness within the group related to social aspects; (b) group integration—task (GI-T), closeness within the group related to group activities and goals; (c) attractions to the group—social (ATG-S), the individual’s feelings about the group pertaining to social aspects; and (d) attachment to the group—task (ATG-T), the individual’s feelings about the group pertaining to group activities and goals (4).

Group cohesion is thought to be a multidimensional construct consisting of task and social components, as well as group integration and individual attraction components.

COMMON METHODS TO ASSESS GROUP COHESION

The Group Environment Questionnaire (GEQ), created in 1985 by Carron et al. (4), has been used to assess the four scales of individual ATG-S, individual ATG-T, GI-S, and GI-T for sports teams. If you are a coach of a sports team, a quick Google search to find this questionnaire is worth your time. The GEQ also has been modified to be used in exercise settings (5) (Physical Activity Group Environment Questionnaire [PAGEQ] (6)) and with younger individuals (Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire (7) and Child Sport Cohesion Questionnaire (8)). Additionally, Blanchard et al. (9) modified the GEQ for use in the exercise setting. We suggest checking out the PAGEQ and modified GEQ by Blanchard et al. questionnaires in full as these can be some wonderful food for thought questions to help you think about your exercise program (6,9). You may even want to survey your participants. Who says data survey nerds cannot have great quads and biceps?

HOW CAN WE AIM TO INFLUENCE IT?

First, let's discuss how we might try to influence the four components of group cohesion discussed above. You will notice there is some overlap between these components.

  • GI-S: Our focus here is social bonding within the group. We provide opportunities for our members to interact before and after classes. Additionally, we may even set up an outside event for our exercise participants to be able to engage with fellow members.
  • GI-T: We have a shared commitment to engaging in exercise together. We aim to help our members have united beliefs in the benefits and activities of the exercise sessions. We create environments of encouragement and help others when needed during the sessions.
  • ATG-S: Our exercise programs include opportunities to interact with group members. We want our exercise groups to be a place where social interactions occur (and are pleasurable), where relationships are formed, and if the class were to end that people would miss the group (insert sad emoji).
  • ATG-T: Here we aim to reinforce individual commitment to exercise. Whether our program consists of high-intensity training or walking, we want to ensure we communicate our united commitment to come and participate in that structured, intentional exercise for all the benefits it gives. To help individuals stay engaged, we want to continue to help them challenge their current levels of fitness and achieve their fitness goals through involvement in our programs.

Because we are having such fun, let’s continue with a couple of additional knowledge nuggets that may be helpful as an exercise and fitness professional. So, shall we keep going? We must. Another area to focus on is trying to improve the environment through creating distinctiveness by such means as branded promotional products (can we say swag, anyone?) and creating opportunities to be physically close during workouts (“close” in a post-COVID-19 world) (10). Bruner and Spink (11) created and implemented a program where they specifically used team building (TB) intervention strategies focused on group environment, group structure, and group processes. The authors reported that all of the TB strategies contributed to cohesion; however, the best predictor of cohesion was communication/interaction, which in the study included encouragement in performing activities and offering feedback in addition to pairing up with different participants for partner exercises (11). Caperchione et al. (12) produced valuable research on the effects of leader behaviors on group cohesion: “Simply stated, group leaders who were perceived as being highly enthusiastic, having the ability to motivate, are able to provide personal instruction, and who are available outside of the group’s regular activities were associated with higher levels of group cohesion” (p. 325). Now those are some knowledge nuggets that we, as exercise professionals, can use in our exercise programs on an ongoing basis to increase perceptions of group cohesion in our exercise clients.

WRAP-UP

Why is understanding the power of group cohesion in exercise settings an important tool to add to our behavioral toolkit? “Based on research conducted to date, it is reasonable to conclude that people who hold stronger beliefs about the cohesiveness of their exercise class will: (a) attend more classes, (b) be more likely to arrive on time, (c) be less likely to drop out, (d) be more resistant to disruptions in the group, (e) be more likely to experience greater amounts of positive affect related to exercise, (f) have improved attitudes toward exercise, and (g) have stronger efficacy beliefs related to exercise” (p. 65) (13).

By targeting and implementing specific activities aimed at increasing perceptions of group cohesion, in addition to focusing on our own leadership styles, and ensuring interaction and communication between group members, we create the ideal environment for group cohesion to develop and thrive in our exercise programs. Who does not want that?

“Based on research conducted to date, it is reasonable to conclude that people who hold stronger beliefs about the cohesiveness of their exercise class will: (a) attend more classes, (b) be more likely to arrive on time, (c) be less likely to drop out, (d) be more resistant to disruptions in the group, (e) be more likely to experience greater amounts of positive affect related to exercise, (f) have improved attitudes toward exercise, and (g) have stronger efficacy beliefs related to exercise” (p. 65) (13).

References

1. Estabrooks PA, Harden SM, Burke SM. Group dynamics in physical activity promotion: what works?Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2012;18–40.
2. Burke S, Carron A, Eys M, Ntoumanis N, Estabrooks P. Group versus individual approach? A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of interventions to promote physical activity. Psychol. 2006;145419220.
3. Carron AV. Cohesiveness in sport groups: interpretations and considerations. J Sport Psychol. 1982;4(2):123–38.
4. Carron AV, Widmeyer WN, Brawley LR. The development of an instrument to assess cohesion in sport teams: the Group Environment Questionnaire. J Sport Psychol. 1985;7(3):244–66.
5. Carron AV, Brawley LR, Widmeyer WN. The measurement of cohesiveness in sport groups. In: Duda JL, editor. Advancements in Sport and Exercise Psychology Measurement. Morgantown (WV): Fitness Information Technology; 1988. p. 213–26.
6. Estabrooks PA, Carron AV. The Physical Activity Group Environment Questionnaire: an instrument for the assessment of cohesion in exercise classes. Group Dyn Theory Res Pract. 2000;4(3):230–43.
7. Eys M, Loughead T, Bray SR, Carron AV. Development of a cohesion questionnaire for youth: the Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2009;31(3):390–408.
8. Martin L, Carron A, Eys M, Loughead T. Development of a cohesion inventory for children’s sport teams. Group Dyn Theory Res Pract. 2012;16:68–79.
9. Blanchard C, Poon P, Rodgers W, Pinel B. Group Environment Questionnaire and its applicability in an exercise setting. Small Group Res. 2000;31(2):210–24.
10. Prapavessis H, Carron AA, Spink K. Team building in sport. Int J Sport Psychol. 1996;27:269–85.
11. Bruner MW, Spink KS. Evaluating a team building intervention in a youth exercise setting. Group Dyn Theory Res Pract. 2010;14(4):304–17.
12. Caperchione C, Mummery WK, Duncan M. Investigating the relationship between leader behaviours and group cohesion within women’s walking groups. J Sci Med Sport. 2011;14(4):325–30.
13. Estabrooks PA. Sustaining exercise participation through group cohesion. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2000;28(2):63–7.
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