Social Media and the Climate of Fitness
It’s become fashionable, almost expected, to poke fun at the #fitspiration crowd. The messages are counterproductive, the status updates reek of insecurity, the list goes on. Even magazines with no business in fitness are getting into the act with headlines like these: “People who post their fitness routine to Facebook have psychological problems, study claims.”
There is some truth to these claims, but before jumping on the hater’s high horse, consider this: fitness has always been a social endeavor. Even before the first Olympic games more than 2500 years ago, health, fitness, and nutrition have been closely tied to status, competition, and even divinity. As the times have changed, our victory shout has become our status update and olive wreaths have become Facebook ‘likes,’ but human nature is the same.
The internet allows for new ways to share information and create relationships, and it is up to us to leverage these relationships in a productive way, just like the physical culture clubs of the early 2000s, the Persian zurkhaneh, and the Greek gymnasia have done in times past.
We share on social media for four reasons: a need for validation, self-expression, communication, and to share information. [Photo courtesy of Pixabay]
Social Media and Habit Change
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and 22-Pushup Challenge have taught us an important lesson: community has the power to get us to do things we would normally never do. In his book Influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini outlines three mechanisms that explain how these systems work, and how we can use these to our advantage to help us generate our own change:
- The Written Word. There’s power in writing things down, and this power is multiplied by the public eye. The internet never forgets, and a written commitment to a clear goal cuts off your exit routes when things get difficult and you start thinking “I didn’t really mean I wanted a 1400 pound total… 1200 is more reasonable.”
- Social Commitment. By publicly committing to a task and surrounding yourself with friends and groups that share your goals, you hit yourself with a compliance double-whammy: you’re now under pressure to live up to your promise, and you’ve surrounded yourself with a tribe of people to emulate.
- Identity. As you do, so you become. It’s easy to think of your actions as arising from your ‘self,’ but often it’s the other way around. Even if you don’t see yourself as a ‘fit person,’ the more you “fake it ‘til you make it,” and the more people see and think of you as fit person, the more you become the type of person who adopts ‘fit’ habits, and change will begin to follow.
None of these is a substitute for personal interaction, and it is certainly possible to get it wrong. The wrong groups can reinforce ‘healthy’ behaviors that have no real positive effect, things like detoxes and coffee enemas. Still, if you’re struggling to take the first step or facing a wall in your training, why not use every resource possible to help drive success?
Broaden Your Horizons
Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat get all the attention when people start arguing about the merits of #fitspo, but there are alternatives to your Facebook wall if you’re looking for information and community.
Find a subgroup of serious trainees with similar goals, and you’ll often find the exchange a lot more rewarding than getting another ‘like’ from your mom. Groups like Renaissance Periodization and Barbell Medicine provide sub-communities within Facebook where lifters can ask each other questions and share concerns without the fear of addressing their non-training (‘muggle’) friends who won’t understand. Personally, I’ve learned a great deal from following the training logs of some great lifters on several sites and keeping a log myself at Starting Strength.
For a great example of how social media can create positive change, look no farther than Ivy Knight, the founder of Girls Who Powerlift. In this interview, you can see all the factors we’ve talked about going into play. She is putting herself out there in words cemented in her commitment. The social support and encouragement of the community drove her to compete, and inspired a major life change. The platform normalized an identity and created a supportive community for many women who hadn’t really considered the possibility of lifting heavy weights.
It’s possible to troll this approach, but why? If taking on an identity as a ‘girl who powerlifts’ and wearing #peachgang shirts helps someone get on the platform, get over body issues, or feel connected to a community of capable and powerful lifters, what’s the problem?
Assess Your Goals… And Don’t Hate
Why are you sharing? In general, we share on social media for four reasons: a need for validation, self-expression, communication, and to share information.
If you seriously look back at your posts, you may find a history of validation-seeking: perfectly posed/lighted/filtered Instagram selfies and post-Fran sweat-angels designed to collect likes. If that’s the sum of your fitness interaction, you’re missing out on what social media can do to support your program. Find a mentor or social group. Reach out and make a connection with an author you like to express your appreciation, ask a question, or challenge a point. Follow some credible experts in your sport and actually read what they have to put out.
On the other hand, before you get grumpy about your friend’s zillionth post-run “look at me” photo, consider this: they’re doing something. Maybe they’re posting to get attention… or maybe becoming fit was a huge transformation for them, and now it’s become an integral part of their life. Maybe the social reward helps them hit it the next day and get past the fact that running sucks (an irrefutable, scientific fact). Maybe you’re just grumpy because you haven’t been to the gym yourself for two weeks and don’t appreciate the reminder. Maybe we should spend less time studying how other people use social media and turn our lens inward to our own habits. Just maybe.
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