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Sunday
Aug122012

Friendships that Go the Distance

To prepare for this article, I Googled terms like "bonding and exercise," "heart rate and friendship," "fitness and relationships."

I didn't find much.

Can it really be that researchers haven't studied whether two people exercising together bond more quickly than people doing other activities? It seems like a no-brainer to me. We've all read stories about heart rate and attraction--how a person's heart rate and energy level increase when he's attracted to someone, which in turn increases his alertness and interest. We've also heard about people bonding through experiencing a mutual challenge.

Seems to me these states apply to people who exercise together. Heart rates and energy levels increase during exercise, and I can't remember the last workout that wasn't a challenge. If I'm exercising in tandem, why wouldn't these physiological and psychological effects encourage increased friend bonding, as they do in other pair bonding?

Lack of scientific research aside, I believe they do. (As I've written before, getting me moving is the best way to connect with me.)

I've made some incredible friendships through exercise.

Certainly, it's partially because exercising is how I spend a lot of my "free" time--and people always make friends during playtime. But the nature of the playtime has to make a difference, even if only a small one.

Here’s my thinking:

  • While sweating and struggling, you can't get away with too many airs or false pretenses. Exercise reduces you to your core elements. I've seen people who otherwise might be intimidating or high-falutin' on their knees in the gym or crying through a long run. I like long-distance relay races, and after two days in a van with a group of people who haven't eaten a solid meal, showered (unless you count baby-wipe baths), or slept, you can truly say you've seen them at the base of Maslow's hierarchy.
  • You'll learn a lot about someone when you see him face a challenge. You may learn good things and you may learn bad things. Either way, you'll more quickly than otherwise grasp whether this person is worthy of your time and effort. Getting to know someone through exercise helps prevent friendships in which only later you realize someone's a jerk.
  • When you get to know people through exercise, you might very well be there for some pretty special moments in their lives. And even if you're not training together toward a breakthrough, you'll push and support each other. Going through something with someone--especially on a regular basis--makes for some pretty powerful friendships.
  • Do anything often with someone, and you'll get to know her pretty well. Distance running is especially well set up for this. A two-hour long run with a stranger? She won't be a stranger long. Before you know it, you'll be each other's counselors and trusted advisors on things political, corporate, and personal. One of my closest friends today was a business acquaintance who became a friend only after we'd sweated through a few runs together, when I'd confided in him about a personal-life challenge, and he'd shared a trauma he'd experienced at his then employer. Running aside, I've also forged friendships in the gym over regular half-hour lifting sessions. Even when you're chuffing air and streaming sweat, you have a lot of time for talking and sharing.

Yesterday I went for a run and saw three people along the route that I knew well. Many times I've gone out for some exercise and found a new friend. I'm going to keep at it. We all have a rare few people for whom we'd go the distance. Many of mine I've met through exercise.

One of my closest friends and I looking like a complete disaster after I paced her to a personal best in the 2010 San Antonio Half Marathon.

My Texas Independence Relay team, WTF?!, ready to start the race in early March 2011.

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Reader Comments (4)

The thing is that in the 20th century there was a fundamental paradigm shift not only in physicality but in relationships as well.

Back in the olden days you could count on a lifetime of hard work (farming, factory work, pioneering, and other such labors). If you were lucky enough to be born in this time your life was one of giant hearty breakfasts followed by dawn to dusk physical exertion along with either family members or fellow employees and then followed by an evening meal and/or alcoholic binge (depending on your religious views).

If you were really "lucky" a war might come along and drag you far away for three to five years and you could build lifetime bonds with your fellow survivors as you walked for hundreds or thousands of miles to fight and then walked all the way home again.

At the beginning of the 20th century you go from a rural farming economy to an urban factory economy but you also get the advent of the office worker beginning to take hold. Things stay more or less the same. People still work hard and spend long hours with those that will become their lifelong friends.

In the second half of the 20th century you get the decline of the primary economy and the rise of the service and intellectual sectors. The old economy may be gone but the old way of eating remains and causes widespread health problems like heart disease. In addition you start getting distractions like mass media so you don't have to spend time with people you spend it in front of the TV or at the movies or listening to radio. We began living a more hectic life with more things to do and with less time to do them in. Not conducive to making deep friendships.

You get the rise of fitness gyms and jogging in the 70s as a partial solution to the health problem. Conventional TV viewing seems to be on the decline (though this may just be replaced with time in front of the computer). The current culture at least seems to be more health conscious and seems to understand that exercise is needed to combat this.

As to friendships, that's a little trickier. The advent of the web has created its own environment for interaction. Can you build strong bonds across an electronic bridge? Some say yes, some say no.

The counter argument is that you make acquaintances online, not friends. Many feel that you need "face time" to build a bond that lasts.

I do know from my own experiences with an online relationship site (okcupid) that seven couples I know met online and then took the plunge into matrimony and that five are still together. Granted it wasn't all online.

Ultimately I think its a matter of being in a setting or in a situation that you can spend time with someone and get to know them. That you can be willing to put aside the Ipad or the day planner or whatever and invest the time to know another person. Friendships may be the last handmade quality product we can find in this world of ours.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Pora

Proximity and effort are critical to friendships, whether in person or via today's technology (Web, social media, telephone, text)--I completely agree, William. However, I do think some modicum of face time is important, even if infrequent, to solidify the connection. After all, we are still human animals--animals that need personal interaction.

August 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

Some tangential reading (some more than others)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10150765

http://www.sirc.ca/newsletters/mid-jan10/documents/S-996370.pdf

http://www.exercisephysiologists.com/SocialInfluences/index.html

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Pora

Chewy finds, William! Lots of good information here--I especially found the third link interesting, with lots of thought-provoking information. (Especially the information around self presentation!)

Still surprised, though, that it seems no one has studied whether people more quickly form friendships with people with whom they've exercised. Or whether the friendships formed between two people who met through exercising together are deeper than friendships formed in other ways.

August 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

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