Bring the competition or the cheer squad? There’s an app for that.

Humans are social creatures: We tend to live, work and play together. Our social bonds come into even sharper focus during the holidays as we gather with family and friends. That’s also when we promise ourselves that we’re going to drop those pounds and get into shape (starting January 2, of course).

For many people, that pledge, along with our inherently social nature, will mean signing up for group fitness classes. In fact, more than 22 million Americans took group classes in 2015—that was 43 percent of those who belong to gyms and health clubs around the country.

Part of what makes the social factor in group exercise important is our competitive spirit. Being in a group can challenge you to push yourself to keep pace with others in the class.

Yet while we often think about that group dynamic in terms of how it challenges us to excel, there’s another aspect that’s just as important: mutual support.

Whether it’s a high-energy Spin class or a more focused Pilates session, having someone else encourage you can be just as effective in motivating you to do your best. Sometimes just being able to look around and realize you’re not the only one having trouble staying with that last sprint can be a great positive reinforcement. It’s the power of community that you find at a fitness club.

Power from the virtual community

Social media—including the social functions built into many of today’s fitness apps—let you extend that group power across a virtual community. By posting your stats and goals, you can pit yourself against friends online and challenge each other to go faster, farther or do better.

You also can use it to get (and give) support, just like the group class. Just like meeting in a group class, social media can introduce you to challenges and support from people you’ve never met before, turning strangers into supporters.

In fact, those strangers-turned-fitness-friends may well be people you never see. That’s one of the great assets of social media: It allows you to find like-minded people from all over the world, strike up a friendship and get to know one another.

Gaming to group fitness

It’s one of the aspects of video gaming, for example, that many players find appealing. Not only are they able to find talented teammates in distant cities, but they also have a chance to interact with people from many other cultures and circumstances. It keeps the game from becoming a solo experience with a machine, ensuring it is a social experience that’s as much about the people as the programming.

The power of that group dynamic explained why so many fitness apps take their cues from developments in video gaming, from their interfaces to the social component. Designers have learned over the years how to make video games compelling and “sticky”—which is just what you want in a fitness app. The stickier they are, the more likely you are to play or, in this case, exercise.

Group power for health

There’s perhaps an even more important aspect of the power of social media: It can provide the support to keep you happier and healthier overall.

You’ll find that most apps aimed at common (and difficult) changes, like long-term weight loss or dietary changes, have a heavy focus on social interaction. There’s a good reason: It makes those programs more effective. Recent research at the University of Michigan showed that people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, tend to follow their treatment plans more closely if they have regular social support from family, friends or caregivers.

Social interactions also can bring parents and kids together. I remember joking years ago with a friend who said he was more likely to get his daughter to come out of her room for dinner by texting her instead of knocking on her door. But in an age when kids are tied to their phones, it’s not such a strange idea.

Social media can be a way to remind kids about a healthy path of activity and good nutrition. Parents can create a shared fitness calendar they and their kids can use to set up a family hike or bike ride.

Whether it’s the challenge, the support or the family connection, the power of the group can be amazing. The more social you are, the healthier you can be.

Photography: dijanato/Stocksy, Adobe Stock; Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock; Rob and Julia Campbell; g-stockstudio, Thinkstock