Why are most queerfit workouts done in teams?  So you’ll work harder. Put together a 2-6 person team, give them something to try and beat, and everyone of the team will almost always increase their intensity level.  It doesn’t matter whether the competition is “us against them” or “us against the clock” – what drives people to put in a little extra ooomph is being part of “us.”

Yet, exercise tends to be a solitary pursuit.  The loneliness of the long distance runner and all that.  Even in group exercise – zumba, cardio kickboxing, krankcycle, mini-trampolining – the set-up is every person facing front and individually mimicking what the instructor is doing.  It’s the myth of rugged individualism dressed up in leotards.

Problem is, relying on personal drive to improve our performance is contrary to human nature. Michael Tomasello  put it nicely in Why We Cooperate when he pointed out that humans have “hyper-cooperative tendencies.”  Homo sapiens are adapted to act and think cooperatively, especially when someone who is part of the group is in need of help.  In a study of 14-18 month old infants, when an adult drops a clothespin, the infant immediately goes to help pick it up.  If the adult doesn’t look like he’s looking for help – if he throws down the clothespin, for instance – then no help is forthcoming from the infant.  From this and hundreds of other studies, Tomasello concludes we are hardwired for altruism and cooperation.

This week’s Saturday queerfit workout brought Tomasello’s book to mind. Why we cooperate? Well, because we put together a 3-round team workout where each round required a total number of one-armed dumbbell snatches, squats, and push-ups, and a 75 yard run and up & over a 4-foot tree limb…and where the next round could not start until everyone was done with the previous round.  The workout had a time goal of 15 minutes.  The total number of reps, if evenly split, worked out to 30 per person per movement, but there was no set number that any particular person had to do.

The first round, everyone did their own 30 reps, runs, and climbs.  That round took 5:30, so we needed to figure out on the fly how to move faster as a group for the second round.  For the second round, people who finished their 30 reps jumped in to pick up reps for their fellow queerfitters who were still pushing/snatching/squatting, and helped each other up and over the tree limb as needed.  That round took 5:15, so it was faster but we were still behind the goal pace.  Third round, someone yelled (wheezed) out: I need push-ups! That was the breakthrough. Someone else asked for squats and within two seconds everyone had figured out where they could load in to get the work done.  We finished that round in under 5:00.

It was confirmation that working out on teams produces higher intensity while being a lot more fun. But the real lesson of the morning: our hyper-cooperative tendencies work best when you’re willing to ask for help.  Not a lesson I’ve finished learning, so many thanks to this weekend’s queerfitters for the reminder.