If you want to be healthy and fit, hang out with healthy and fit people. And thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to do so.
The makeup of your social circle has huge implications for your health and fitness. Research shows when someone becomes obese, his or her friends are a whopping 57 percent more likely to become obese too. If one of your friends quits cigarettes, the chances you’ll smoke decrease by 36 percent. Social influence remains surprisingly strong even in the case of second and third degree connections. If a friend-of-a-friend becomes obese, your odds of putting on extra pounds rise by 20 percent; if a three-degrees-removed acquaintance starts smoking, it impacts the chances you will light up by a not insignificant 11 percent.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to quickly overhaul your social circle… Or is it?
This is where the cutting edge work of clinical psychologist and health behavior expert Dr. Sherry Pagoto comes in. Pagoto studies the impact of social media on health, and what she’s finding is fascinating. In a recent research project, Pagoto asked people trying to lose weight about the support they received from their “virtual” friends (i.e., Twitter and Facebook) versus their “real” friends (i.e., physically present). Those in her study rated their virtual friends as significantly more supportive and less negative than their real friends. (Note: Twitter seems to be the best place for encouragement, slightly edging out Facebook.) What’s more, there’s evidence that the virtual support really works: participants in Pagoto’s study that used social media for weight-loss goals shed more pounds than they had in their most recent prior attempt.
Why Social Media Works
Dr. Pagoto speculates that the effect of social media is strong for a number of reasons. For starters, she explains that “when you enter the social media universe, it really opens things up. It’s so easy to find people that are embarking on similar challenges to you.” In essence, instead of asking everyone in your city who is also running a marathon for support, you’re asking everyone in the world who is also running a marathon for support. When your pool is so vast, “you’re a lot more likely to find someone going through exactly what you are,” Pagoto says. Although Pagoto’s research focuses on more common goals (e.g., weight loss and getting regular exercise), the “widening-pool-effect” of social media may be even more valuable for fringe athletes embarking on less common journeys (e.g., power-lifters, Ironman triathlons, ultra-marathons, adventure racing).
Once you’ve found your digital-health-goal niche, social media creates an avenue for instantaneous feedback. “The historical challenge to behavior change is that it’s impossible to know when we’ll need the extra encouragement,” Pagoto explains. “It’s hard to predict when we’ll feel like abandoning our goals, and even if we could, it’s not exactly like you can call on a licensed behavior change counselor for help on Sunday at 8 a.m.[when we’d rather eat chocolate chip pancakes than go to the gym]. But we can post on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit, and get pretty close to instant support.”
As a competitive endurance athlete (in my own mind, anyways) I’ve often used social media for instantaneous support without even realizing it. “Four-hours on the indoor bike” with a picture of my triathlon bike set-up in the living-room tweeted off really just amounts to a call for some encouragement at 6 a.m. on a Sunday – when few outside of my virtual circle would be there to give it, let alone be able to empathize with the misery of riding one’s bike indoors for four hours.
While giving someone the advice to “go make friends that have the same health and fitness goals as you” may seem outlandish, in today’s digital world, it’s actually spot-on. This three-step plan can help:
First, clearly define your goals and make an honest appraisal of your ability level and the type of support you are looking for. For example, are you a beginner trying to run your first 5-K, or an experienced runner trying to go sub-3 for the marathon?
Next, do some homework. Google around for relevant forums, search for different hashtags, and find people that you might want to “follow.” Spend some time browsing conversation threads, and find the forum/group/network that aligns best with the type of assistance you need.
Just post! While there is always the potential for trolls to spew off nonsense and for some folks to give less-than-perfect advice, Dr. Pagoto still encourages people to be proactive. “Don’t be scared to reach out to and ‘friend’ strangers. "Generally speaking, if you post something that is genuine and you’re in the right group (i.e., appropriate for your skill-level and prior knowledge), you’ll be amazed by the outpouring of support you’ll receive in the response.”
I’ll be the first to admit that, for years, I was a social media detractor. I particularly thought people’s posts about training and the like were nothing more than ego-driven boasts. When I finally joined Twitter I quickly learned I was wrong, and now Dr. Pagoto’s research explains why.
If you're looking for support, start with me. On Twitter I'm at @bstulberg. I may also call for some encouragement on hour three of my early morning stationary bike ride.