Posting your fitness feats on social media can make others feel worse about themselves

TUCSON, Ariz. — Your Facebook newsfeed might be full of those friends who frequently post their running routes and distances, or their latest CrossFit accomplishment. You have your own feelings about the posts, of course, be it jealousy or admiration, but believe it or not, this kind of content may also affect your own health.

A new study shows how sharing our fitness feats on social media can certainly inspire friends to get in shape, but for others, it can make them feel markedly worse about themselves. Researchers at the University of Arizona and Texas State University found that the more exercise-related posts people see on social media, the more concerned they become with their own body and weight, which could result unhealthy body image.

Woman browsing Facebook
A new study shows how sharing our fitness feats on social media can certainly inspire friends to get in shape, but for others, it can make them feel markedly worse about themselves.

To reach their conclusion, the authors had 232 participants view 30 days’ worth of posts on their favorite social media outlet. Participants counted how many posts had to do with exercise or physical activity. They then selected three friends who posted the most fitness content and rated how similar they feel to them, and completed a questionnaire about their perceived body image and whether or not they tend to make more “upward” or “downward” comparisons to people on social media.

“With upward social comparisons, you tend to compare yourself to those you perceive as superior to you,” explains lead author Tricia Burke, a professor of communication studies at Texas State University, in a release. “So, for example, if you’re in a classroom, you’d compare yourself to the smartest kid in class. In terms of exercise, if a person is posting a lot about exercise, they must be really fit, so you’re using that as a motivator.”

On the other hand, a downward social comparison would entail a person measuring themselves against someone they perceive as not doing as well as they are. The authors found that social media users are more likely to be concerned about their weight if they perceive their friends who post their physical activity and exercise endeavors as similar to themselves.

“When people received more posts about exercise, it made them more concerned about their weight — more self-conscious — and that’s not a good thing,” says co-author Stephen Rains a professor of communication at Arizona. “We thought about this from the perspective of social comparison theory, and the idea that we use others as benchmarks to figure out where we stand. Similarity heightens social comparison, so if the person posting about exercise is someone who’s in your age group, has a similar build or a similar background, you might think that’s a pretty good reference, and that might spark in you even greater weight concern.”

Of course, some people are motivated by their friends posting about their exercise exploits, the study also found.

“We’re still trying to figure out the effects of these technologies, which have barely been used over 10 years,” says Rains. “This is all still pretty new ground, and we’re trying to make sense of what it means, and if and why it matters.”

Moving forward, the authors want to venture into the reasons social media users post their exercise accomplishments publicly to begin with. Is it to motivate others, feel better about themselves, or simply to share a piece of their lives with friends?

The full study was published Jan. 24, 2018 in the journal Health Communication.

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Ben Renner

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