UCalgary study looks at links between physical activity and finding community | News

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Everyone knows working out can be great for your physical well-being, but research shows it can have a huge impact on mental and social well-being, too.

And it can be a meaningful way to connect and spend an extended amount of time with others on a regular basis, especially for older adults or people with chronic diseases.

Dr. Meghan McDonough, PhD, from the University of Calgary’s Relationships and Exercise Lab, and her graduate student Bobbie-Ann Craig, MSc’22, have been looking into the links between physical activity and the benefits surrounding the finding of community within the fitness sphere.

“One of the things that we’re really interested in is how physical activity can be this meaningful place to connect, because you can or tend to do it on an ongoing basis over time and you can meet regularly with people, but you have a purpose for coming together,” says McDonough. 

“It can be an entry point for people to become part of a group or join a group, even if it can sometimes be socially awkward to just suddenly strike up a friendship, but now you have this other purpose to get together.”

While fitness professionals such as instructors understand that the social component of physical activities is important for their participants, they might not know specific ways to help facilitate or support those types of social relationships. McDonough has been working on understanding specific strategies and mechanisms and creating educational materials to help promote the best ways to support clients in the fitness world. 

Self-compassion could be key 

Craig, a second-year PhD student, has also been trying to understand how resources or tools such as self-compassion could be more integrated within fitness program planning and the impact this could have for clients. 

Craig defines self-compassion as being kind and non-judgmental toward oneself when one experiences a stressor or a difficulty in life, rather than being harsh or self-critical.

A headshot of a woman with long blonde hair

Bobbie-Ann Craig

“Self-compassion in general has been explored a lot in sporting contexts, such as with coaches or teammates; however, it hasn’t really been explored as much in the physical-activity setting,” says Craig. “We are really interested in exploring whether it can also be used by fitness professionals. The main study that we’re focusing on is looking at the associations between self-compassion and providing social support. And we’re really interested in looking at perspectives from both fitness professionals, as well as the participants in their classes.”

Need for community 

The COVID-19 pandemic really highlighted this need for community. Since McDonough focuses on programs that serve older adults that might already by retired, or people coping with chronic disease, the sudden suspension of in-person programs created a huge challenge. 

“The quick switch that many programs made to online … was a great way for people to still have continuity of programs, but the social elements of those programs have really changed,” says McDonough. “When you have online interactions, not that (the social aspect is absent), but they’re quite different, and so we had to make a quick shift to learning about that.”

Though most fitness programs have returned to normal, and the pandemic is better managed, there are still issues and varying comfort levels, with some people being nervous when it comes to joining in-person groups again. 

McDonough and her team have been working closely with local community partners such as City of Calgary Recreation to help create educational materials and to make a difference in the professional setting. 

McDonough’s team is creating an online continuing education module for fitness professionals, which will be available on open access through the UCalgary library once the project is complete. They will also be sharing findings with partners on the project, including City of Calgary Recreation, the Kirby Centre, and UCalgary Active Living.

For more information on how to sign up to participate with these studies please visit the Relationships and Exercise Lab in the Faculty of Kinesiology.

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