7 Fun Ways to Exercise Together When You Can't Get Together

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, many Americans were feeling lonely. One 2018 study of 20,000 people found that 43 percent of people felt isolated from others, and only slightly more than half felt like they were having meaningful social interactions with people they love on a daily basis.

Long after the stay-at-home orders are over and we can hug our loved ones again, many of those we love most will still be far away--old friends from our childhood homes, brothers and sisters in other cities, and even people across town who are busy with their kids.

Fitness to the rescue! Before loneliness takes over, a concrete, physical goal or competition can spur you and your closest friends and relatives to talk, text and email more often than a vague promise to "touch base more often." Not only will you always have something new to talk about, but with the extra physical activity, you'll all have more healthy years ahead to enjoy each other's company. Hit up the group chat with one of these seven suggestions for fitness challenges that will help you stay close even when you're far away.

1. Walk the Great Wall of China, hike the Appalachian trail or take on another challenge together—virtually:

Sisters Sharon Dimmick and Mary Jurgens have always stayed in touch, but since they started doing the "Run the Year" challenge last year, their contact has become more…competitive. "We used to talk in spurts; now, it's more consistent. We'll talk or text and say, 'where are you today? I'm kicking your butt!'" says Jurgens.

"Run the Year" is a virtual challenge where individuals or teams use a tracking app to try to run or walk the same number of miles as the year—so 2,020 miles in 2020. And because it's virtual, they don't need to be in the same place: Dimmick is in Lubbock, Texas, and this is her second year of the challenge with Jurgens, who is in Westminster, Colorado.

Lots of challenges—and apps—like these have popped up in recent years, and most allow you to make a team to try to tackle a virtual distance together. Whether it's traversing the distance of Hadrian's Wall, doing a virtual thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail or another distance, you can work together—and motivate each other—toward a goal. Most challenges are free, but some provide a medal or other swag if you pay a little extra. And they don't all have to be competitions—even as Dimmick and Jurgens try to beat each other some days, they also team up during some weeks or months.

"You need to find someone who will hold you accountable, but is also going to support you. When you have a bad day and you've given up, they'll say, 'You didn't screw up today. You still moved more than you did two weeks ago,'" Dimmick explains. Some weeks, Jurgens says, they'll design a challenge within their challenge, such as trying to get 100,000 steps together for the week. Their next co-challenge? One million steps in October.

2. Play socially distant HORSE:

While sheltering in place in April 2020, NBA and WNBA players played HORSE from afar, with ESPN slinging videos of their shots back and forth for fans to watch at home. But you don't have to be a pro—and it doesn't have to be a pandemic—to stay in touch while getting a game in from waaaaay downtown.

This virtual version of HORSE will help you stay in touch, get everyone outside (or at least moving), and give your crew the kind of ribbing, supporting and laughing that comes with friendly competition. Once you've challenged a group to the game, here's how to do it:
  1. Send a video (or at least a description) of your first shot to the group. 
  2. Everyone has 72 hours (three days) to send a video of their own attempt.
  3. Those who miss (or skip the shot) get an H, just like in a regular game of HORSE.
  4. After everyone has done shot one, shooter two is up.
One shot every three days isn't much of a workout, but be honest: Are you really going to go to a basketball court and take one shot? Chances are good that you'll get on the court more often, shoot around when you're there and get that heart rate pounding!

3. Start a "Fitness Club" with your crew:

Think "book club," but sweatier: Each week, set a time to get together via video conference to do a virtual fitness class. If you're willing to shell out some cash, it could mean jumping onto your Peletons or pulling up a virtual class online. If you're looking for a laugh and a bargain, many of the classes that were advertised in the 1980s and '90s are now available online for free so you can sweat through a Tae Bo session, work it with a classic Jane Fonda workout or get a stretch in with the ridiculously popular Yoga with Adriene channel.

It doesn't have to be a class, either! For a collaborative challenge you can all do together, try the "deck of cards" challenge. Start by determining an exercise for each suit (hearts are pushups, spades are squats, et cetera). The number (or face) tells you how many repetitions to do (with face cards representing 11 to 15). You can draw one card at a time and do the exercise, or draw three or four at once to create mini-circuits. See if you and the team can get through a whole deck together, then pick new exercises for the next time you try it.

4. Or schedule a weekly walk-and-talk:

It's simple, but this method combines things you need—fresh air and exercise—with something you want—keeping in touch. The key, as with the Fitness Club or events above, is to schedule it: Set a time each week for a one-way call or conference call with your besties, and make it a walk-and-talk so you can catch up while you move around. 

If it's too cold (or hot) to be outside, turn in your walking shoes for the remote, and stream a show simultaneously once per week with an exercise twist. Work together to determine some rules for the show for your own custom fitness challenge. If you're watching "Tiger King", for instance, you could do one squat each time a character says "tiger," and two pushups every time someone says "Joe Exotic." After one episode, you'll all be laughing—and sweating—together.

5. Train together for a real—and really fun—event:

As we get older, surveys show we spend less and less time with friends—but you probably didn't need a survey to tell you that. Kids, more responsibility at work, caring for aging loved ones and other important pulls on our time mean that we can blink and—poof—we haven't seen a best friend or close relative in months or even a few years.

So schedule it! Booking a race or event way in advance gives you the advantages of virtual events described above, but also puts an in-person get-together on your calendar—and because it's booked so early and you'll be working hard for it, it will be much tougher to cancel.

The race doesn't have to be an endless affair like a marathon if that doesn't appeal to you. There are lots of silly, unique and fun events that will have you and your favorite people laughing as you prepare and compete. There's the Krispy Kreme Challenge, a five-mile run through North Carolina with a donut break, that includes a mid-race break to down a dozen doughnuts, or the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a Colorado bike race where riders are joined by a unique pace car—a steam engine that chugs the 50-mile distance along with the cyclists. Find an event that fits your group's style, and get it scheduled!

6. Make your own fitness-for-charity challenge:

Not long after the "ice bucket challenge" raised more than $115 million for ALS research, the 22-pushup challenge for American veteran suicide awareness emerged. Why not merge your love of fitness and friends to create the next charity challenge? Become fitness crusaders each month by choosing challenges like these that already exist to raise money for worthy causes, or by creating one of your own. If the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is close to your heart, you could create a 15 Lunges for Leukemia challenge, challenging each other to do 15 lunges each day for 15 days and then donating $15 to the society, all while spreading the word and sharing it on social media. It's good for the world, good for your soul and good for your social life. Winner, winner!

7. Or make a monthly challenge to reward each other:

A monthly challenge can also create an incentive to get together in the future—and to trash talk or support each other in the meantime. Create your own monthly challenge (most miles logged on a fitness watch tracker, most pushups performed over the course of a month, or some other challenge you're all up for) and then create some stakes. The winner for each month could pick the next month's challenge or, even better, earn their next dinner or round of drinks paid for by the group. You'll have more reasons to stay in touch and more reasons to get back together to cash in those prizes.