Exercise programs generally fall into one of two camps. The first is the individual workout. You against the treadmill. Or the deadlift bar. Or the shoulder press machine.  Maybe there’s a workout partner or a personal trainer to egg you on. But in an individual workout, all the huffing and puffing is you doing you.

The second is the group workout: bootcamps, crossfit, Army PT, Richard Simmons, and spin class. Group workouts tend to be a little more fun and more effective. People work harder when there are other people around, especially if those other people are good looking and scantily clad.

Look a little closer, though, and we see that most group workouts are really individual workouts, done in a group. Being in a group helps you huff and puff a bit harder, and it takes the edge off the loneliness of the long distance runner, but at its core, it’s still an individual workout. You zumba over there, I’ll zumba over here, thank you very much.

Queerfit started out as a traditional group exercise program, with the extra bonus frosting of being queer+trans-centric. What’s developed over the past year, though, is a whole different breed of honey badger. Queerfit has, somewhat unintentionally, mutated into a third kind of exercise program.

We’re working out an exercise program that replaces individualism with mutualism. It’s sexier, more effective, and the path to a better world.

Farfetched? We have to science to back it up.

Michael Tomasello is a psychologist and the Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who has worked with small children and chimpanzees, trying to figure out Why We Cooperate.  Tomasello set up a simple experiment where an adult human started playing a collaborative game with a chimpanzee. When the adult human stopped playing the game, the chimp stopped as well, and went back to picking lice out of its armpit or whatever it is chimps do when left on their own. By contrast, when an adult started and then stopped playing a collaborative game with a 14-24 month old human child, the child immediately and actively tried to get their former partner to re-engage in the game.

Human children, it seems, have an innate ability to move from I-mode to we-mode by forming a joint goal with their partner.  Different from a chimp’s sense of “we,” these 12-24 month old children are forming “a uniquely human sense of ‘we,’ a sense of shared intentionality.”

The more explicit the joint goal, the stronger the “we.” If the adult partner and the child affirmatively agree on the joint goal before they start (let’s get this ball into the basket, ok?), and the adult partner then drops out in the middle of playing, the child will work all that much harder to get the adult to re-engage.

At Queerfit, a workout often includes something along the lines of “100 pushups and 120 squats split any way you like between the 2 of you.” See what’s happening here? We’re practicing moving from I-mode to we-mode. This move, natural and easy for 14-24 month old human children, is no longer natural and easy by the time we become 14 or 24 year old adults. The hegemonic rhetoric of rugged individualism and all that.

In another experiment at the Max Planck Institute, researchers piled a mound of yummy food onto a board and tied two ropes to the board  in a way that it required cooperative action by two chimpanzees (or human children) to pull in. When the food was piled up in two separate stacks, one in front of each chimp, the chimps cooperated great and hauled that plank in like champs. When the food was piled up in a single heap, though, the chimps became chumps and their cooperation fell apart. Tomasello and his crew concluded that the chimps were up to the task cognitively, but they were so stressed out about the fight that was going to ensue should they get the single heap of food in front of them that they just quit.

Human children, on the other hand, performed equally well whether the goodies were in two piles or one. The ability to figure out how to share, it seems, is innate in human children in a way that it is not in chimps.

Ditto when it comes to helping out. When given a weighted pole to haul up a set of steps with a partner, and then a prize at the top, a chimp pulling the pole gets to the top of the steps, collects his prize, and wanders off, leaving his fellow chimp holding the pole and prize-less. A human child, on the other hand, gets to the top of the steps, collects his/her prize, and then continues helping the other child until he/she also got to the top of the steps. Half the children, in fact, ignored the prize when they got to the top of the stairs and kept helping with the pole until their partner had also successfully gotten to the top of the steps. Then the two collected their prizes together.

Doesn’t that give you hope for the human condition?

Human parents here may be raising an eyebrow. Their children, though undoubtedly human, seem instinctively determined to refuse to share with their younger human siblings, and must be taught through Christ-like patience on the part of the parent to do so.  They may also suspect that their child would display helpfulness in the pole experiment only because they have been taught – again, through the Christ-like patience of their under-appreciated parents – that it’s good to be helpful.

OK, maybe. The experiments only show that human children are comparatively better at sharing than chimps, not that we’re permanently hardwired to always share and help. The point, in fact, is that mutualism and individualism are both present in human children, and what’s important is what we do to nurture one or the other.

What’s this got to do with Queerfit? Those of us raised in the U.S. have been soaked in the gospel of individualism since birth. It may be that QF’s socialist gay brand of group exercise is a way for us to nurture the little bits of innate mutualism that have managed to survive. You may have only a smidgeon left, but surely that smidgeon will grow if we exercise it.

Some of the best workouts we’ve done have been ones where we split up into teams and then people share the load and help one another out to finish the task at hand. It may be as simple as one person taking on extra burpees, or figuring out how to get a team member up and over a tree limb. Mutuality can work in more complicated ways as well. In workouts where the time domain of a set of exercises is determined by, for example, how fast one person can run 200 meters, people tend to run like hell when it’s their turn to run. The extra effort is a way of sharing and helping. It’s also, conveniently, the way to a better workout.

So. Don’t be a chimp! Come to QF, where we will treat you like a 12-24 month old human child and encourage the development of your innate predisposition to mutualism.  Tuesday evenings at 6:15 at Phoenix Park II, and Saturday mornings at 10:00 near the Inman Pakr MARTA station.

And if you’d like to exercise your mutualism without the sweat of doing push-ups, we can help: chip in to our squat-a-thon. Your $20 will help us buy sandbags and other heavy things for us to mutually drag, haul and hoist on our way to a better world.