Sure, social media can connect us. It can inspire us. Who among us hasn’t seen a photo of a friend hitting his or her workout goal? Or followed along as someone transformed their bodies into something stronger and healthier, one post at a time, over the course of weeks, months or even years?
Social media can also hold us accountable. Somehow, hitting the treadmill or the weight room is a little easier when you know your friends and followers are expecting to see your results later that day. And this isn’t based on anecdotal evidence — a 2018 study by researchers at Texas State University and the University of Arizona showed some people feel more motivated to work out based on seeing healthy behaviors in their social media feeds. (Specifically, people who felt like those behaviors were modeled by people healthier than they are.)
That same study found, however, that there can be too much of a good thing. Those who were inundated with fitness-related posts were often overly concerned with body image, which the researchers noted can negatively affect self-esteem. Of course, the nature of social media — opening yourself up to public shaming or even well-meaning (if ultimately harmful) comments — can be anxiety-inducing for even the healthiest among us.
All of which raises the question: If you run a marathon and you don’t post it to Instagram, did it even happen?
Yes. Yes, it did.
Here’s the thing: People have been running marathons since, well, Marathon, and they got by for centuries before Facebook, Instagram and the like entered our lives. For the most part, they did just fine.
Again, it’s not all bad, but there is something to be said for keeping our most personal achievements to ourselves. And if we really need our mom, our colleagues or other friends to know about it, we can always message them privately. (If you’re flexing for people you don’t interact with offline — like your ex who still follows you or “your audience,” you might want to reconsider your motives.) While studies show competition and community support are among the most important motivators in getting and staying fit, the most important reason to get healthy is for you, not your legions of followers. (Sorry, Mom.)
As Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, coach at I Run Tons, puts it, “There are times when sharing your vulnerability with your social media following can be incredibly cathartic and healing, sometimes for both you and your followers. But it is important to remember that you don’t ‘owe’ anyone your story.” Indeed, if you find yourself compulsively sharing, or feeling obligated to share things you otherwise would keep offline, it might be time to consider giving yourself a break from social media altogether.
After all, it is a choice — just as you choose what aspects of your relationship to share, you can choose to share (or not) elements of your fitness. “Running and training are incredibly personal,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “They are a part of your identity. And just as we choose what we share with our parents, we choose what we share with our significant other, and we choose what we share with our friends, social media also offers that choice. Perhaps you choose not to share because you just ran your slowest run in 10 years and you just don’t want the forever reminder out there on your platform. Or perhaps you ran a route you’ve been too scared to tackle and in doing so you conquered mental gremlins that you didn’t know you could. Either way, the experience is yours. So share it if you want to or don’t if it doesn’t feel right. Either way, it’s OK.”
- READ MORE > HOW SHARING YOUR RUNS ON SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES YOU FASTER
Another thing to remember is that, while we think of our posts as just one more drop of content in a river of endless scrolling, those posts stick around. This, of course, is not always a good thing, as they can later be discovered by a potential employer, your colleagues or a member of your family. You might find yourself asked about these posts long after you remember posting them. (Yes, those #fitspo pics can come back to haunt you.)
People are competitive. You might set a PR, only to see someone else outpace you at the same distance or even the same race or course. Maybe someone you follow qualifies for a race you didn’t quite make. Whether you realize it or not, your participation in social media can equate to participation in a race where your competitors selectively publicize only their best accomplishments. It’s easy to feel inadequate, discouraged or just plain bad about yourself, as you sit on the couch and idly stumble across an Instagram story about your friend setting a personal best sprint time … on the majestic peaks of Macchu Picchu. (How did they dub the “Chariots of Fire” theme on that video, anyway?)
Consider, too, how posting can affect your consumption on social media. Someone DMs you, you check back in. Someone comments, you fire up the app. Suddenly, you’re starting and ending your day on social media, with ample time spent on it in between. This can impact your personal relationships — as the cliche goes, social media makes us closer to those farthest from us, but it takes us farther from those who are closest — but it can also mean you’re spending time posting and commenting that could be used in healthier ways.
Publishing your every workout on social media can present a safety issue, too. “Posting the location of your workout is something to be mindful of on social media,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “It’s great to give recognition to your local gym, park, etc., but posting your location also means sharing your schedule and whereabouts with not only friends but also with complete strangers who follow you. Be smart. Be safe. Remember that not everyone has the best of intentions.”
We get it. It’s 2019, and asking someone to drop off of social media is like insisting people dress up for air travel, ‘50s-style. It ain’t happening. That said, it’s always good to remind yourself you have a choice — as Gallagher-Mohler says, you don’t “owe” anyone your story. When it comes to one of the most personal topics, your health, what choice are you going to make?