Think about it: Exercise helps you connect with your own body, clear your mind, and fosters community. Plus, “When you engage in exercise, not only does it release endorphins—the chemical that is responsible for the runner’s high—but it also releases endocannabinoids,” DeSteno adds. “These endocannabinoids social bond 1 people1.”
Research by Oxford professor Emma Cohen, Ph.D., similarly shows that group exercise promotes social bonding, DeSteno shares. And when people feel more bonded to each other, “They can actually feel spiritual ecstasy when it gets to the right level,” he notes.
Some fitness brands even lean into the spiritual experience of group exercise—take SoulCycle, for example. “At SoulCycle, one of the last things people often do at the end of the session is called the ‘hill climb,'” DeSteno explains. “It’s this way of pushing yourself to a heightened level of exertion and arousal. As those chemicals release, as you’re doing this with others, and especially if you have music in a spiritual context, it can put your mind in this moment of deep opening. People will cry, and they’ll feel attached to each other.”
Essentially: If you’ve ever felt overcome with emotion during a spinning class, you’re certainly not alone.
Especially with institutions like SoulCycle, much of the adoration from its members stems from a connection with the instructors. DeSteno has heard anecdotal accounts of more and more people viewing their fitness instructors as more than just a coach, even asking them for serious life advice.
You could compare the urge to confide in a fitness instructor to those approaching a faith leader. However, DeSteno notes, we generally don’t equip fitness instructors with the same counseling training, nor do they necessarily sign up to teach cycling while doubling as a life coach.
While it’s always a great idea to create relationships with folks you see often, like fitness instructors, it’s also important to remember that your time in a Pilates or cycling class is meant to connect your body, mind, and even soul, but not to replace therapy.