You’re a typical geek. All your waking hours are spent bathed in the pale glow of a screen. Your workstation is cluttered with empty Red Bull cans and the smell of stale pizza hangs in the air. Actual sun seldom makes contact with your epidermis and you’re beginning to resemble the larval form of the mountain borer beetle.
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You were perfectly happy with this crepuscular existence. But then the tweets about gym started. The breathless announcements of new personal bests for 5km runs. The cool new apps, the must-have gadgets. Your flabby virtual friends started posting before and after pictures of themselves without shirts on and you’re starting to feel left out. In the ultimate injustice, research was released indicating that sitting — once the safest thing anyone could do — can kill you. So you begin to contemplate the unthinkable. You start to wonder whether you too should cut down on carbs and raise your heart rate above 60BPM.
Social media as a source of motivation, support and inspiration for weight loss and exercise is a major trend. Plenty of research indicates that your own exercise and eating habits are strongly influenced by those of your friends and social networks, so it makes sense that social media should provide a sharp virtual kick to our broad backsides.
Social media-based employee fitness programmes like ShapeUp, fitness games like Fitocracy and social goal setting site Social Workout are all premised on the idea that peer pressure and support matched with our competitive inclinations will get your started and stop you from slacking off.
“Social media stimulates support networks, reminders and collective consciousness on steroids,” says Elan Lohmann, founder of Sleek Geek. “That is the only thing on steroids in our community — the message!”
Lohman quit his corporate job to pursue his mission to get 100 000 geeks fit full-time. He’s an interesting example of a growing trend in social media: using tweets and status updates to document the process of getting in shape.
Social media’s effectiveness in the health and fitness space can be linked to several factors.
Most of us know we should quit smoking, get more exercise and cut down on junk food, but we live with our bad habits anyway. Social media makes it that much harder to keep kidding yourself. When you are constantly exposed to tweets and status updates about how others are heading for the gym, riding their bikes or going for a run — and when all those photos prove they’ve lost their manboobs or muffin tops — it’s that much harder to ignore the fact that your BMI is starting to resemble your Klout score.
2. Peer pressure
We’re a society obsessed with looking good, and the narcissism evident on Facebook helps drive the pressure to look good in your profile pics. Research at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine has shown that the heavier a high school student’s circle of face-to-face friends, the more likely an individual is to gain weight. Social media helps ensure that even when you don’t see your friends, you know what they’re up to, so their behaviour continues to influence your own.
Fitness brands have taken to social media like Michael Phelps to water, and with thousands of health and fitness accounts and pages tweeting and updating, it’s easier than ever to get the kind of information you need to get started. Experts like @mikeroussell @martinberkhan and @AlexFerentinos7 respond to specific queries and offer encouragement. If you want personalised advice, it’s only a tweet away.
Make a public declaration about wanting to get fit and it’s that much harder to give up when your stomach starts grumbling. Even if you don’t feel motivated, the thought of having to confess your sins to your support network is enough to make you think twice about filling that gaping void in your soul with a slice of cake.
Fitocracy offers the addiction of a game to motivate participants, while SocialWorkout offers challenges and personal goal-setting. Sleek Geek hosts regular eight-week challenges with guaranteed cash prizes. Each participant puts money in a pot, which is then distributed amongst the winners.
The secret to a support network is a sense of community. “There is no question that a support network is a key ingredient to success in this area… more so than what you are actually doing specifically,” Lohmann observes. Even if the office feeder unwittingly — or deliberately — attempts to sabotage your weight-loss efforts, you can go online to be motivated by your virtual support network.
When you feel like pizza for lunch, you can tell others and they’ll persuade you to get a grilled chicken wrap instead. “People have been so incredibly supportive that I have shed tears of gratitude over the past months,” says blogger Jodene Shaer, who has been documenting her weightloss for the past four years with the hashtag #projectbody. “I find it more on Facebook, with hundreds of my friends liking a status update of a new milestone in weight loss.”
Of course, it’s not chiseled abs and shouts of “Yes we can!” while storming up the nearest 45 degree incline. “I imagine a health company for geeks is gonna do as well as a Linux course for rugby players,” read one sarky comment on MyBroadband after Lohmann’s resignation was announced. A dipstick survey on Twitter reveals mixed feelings about all the fitness updates, largely dependent on the mood of the reader. (“Drives me bloody mad” tweets social media consultant Tiffany Markman. “Have long called it #twanity”).
As with every trend, there is a downside. Endless tweets about workouts, gym visits and runs are boring for most followers, and there’s more than a hint of narcissism in the classic before-and-after avatar that many of the formerly flabby use to advertise their fabulous new selves. There’s also all the food photos. We get it enough from the foodies on Instagram, we don’t need it from the health freaks too. Surely that kind of obsession can’t be healthy.
Lohmann says he doesn’t care: “If what I am doing is getting people into action damn… I will take my pants off!!” As for those who are annoyed, many of them secretly want to get in shape. “It’s funny but even the people who I would have thought I would annoy have confessed that the continued messaging has encouraging them to get their shit together,” he adds.
Obesity is one of the biggest healthcare problems we face globally. The annual cost of obesity is estimated at US$147-billion in the US alone — and that’s based on 2006 figures. Obese individuals spend between 30% more on healthcare according to this global overview. So if all those annoying tweets, apps, status updates, discussions and profile pictures encourage more to get moving, it might just be worth it.
What everyone wants to know, of course, is how Lohmann plans to make money out of all of this. In his announcement about quitting corporate life, he was surprisingly open about how much he has saved (R483 000) and many who read about it would have done their own mental calculations about whether, like him, they could afford live a more meaningful life. Yes, he says, there is the beach front apartment in Mouille Point and the Lexus convertible, but he’s adamant that Sleek Geek is not about money. “Of course I need to pay my rent etc but whether that is Sleek Geek or [something else] I am not yet certain,” he explains. “When a powerful community is built in this space the commercial opportunities will be numerous. I believe if I think about the money first or if I compromise my community we will all lose.”