Anyone out there looking for an interesting research project for your graduate level physiology studies? There’s one area that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but seems that it could (or should) hold a great deal of interest for almost anyone who engages in physical activity. I’m referring to the study of how exercising or competing as part of a group affects individual performance.
Almost all of us can come up with numerous examples of how our experience of exercise is affected by being part of a group. My club organizes winter long runs, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the group dynamic makes us all a little stronger, a little more enduring. Almost every Sunday, you’ll hear some variation of these words: “Thanks for dragging me along on that run; I wouldn’t have made it without you.”
Groups like the November Project might appear to us traditional runners as nutty, but there’s no denying the power of a large group to get people to show up, work hard, and feel good about it. Extreme events for teams like “Tough Mudder” are continuing to grow in popularity. And even in traditional sports like track and cross country, examples are everywhere of how running as part of a pack or relay team can be transformational for the individual athlete.
And yet, you read study after study of training effects and almost all of the research is done on individuals, divorced from any social dynamic or group context. I’d love to see how organizing people into teams affects performance and adaptation.
What started me thinking about this was a news item on my favorite science site, phys.org, reporting on research that found that feeling cold can be influenced by awareness that other people are cold. (“Feeling cold is contagious, scientists find“). The study reports that “…volunteers who watched videos of people putting their hands in cold water found their own body temperature drop significantly.” It goes on to speculate on the reasons this might be true, for example, that physiological empathy for what others are experiencing might enhance our ability to work together in complex communities.
That got me wondering whether other physical states might be “contagious,” for example, sensations of oxygen deprivation, glycogen depletion, fatigue. While it doesn’t rise to the level of research, I’ve certainly seen groups of runners who either over- or under-perform on a particular day, and I’ve always thought it was a purely psychological phenomenon. Now I wonder whether there are other physical mechanisms going on.
Anyway, it’s very exciting to think that we, as a species, might be wired to share physical responses to our environment. In fact, I get shivers just thinking about it.