The Downside To Taking Your Fitness Resolutions Online

Have you broken your New Year's resolution yet? More importantly, if you made a New Year's resolution (or more than one), did you share it on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or some other form of social media? If you're like many of my friends, you've done both. But what are the costs of sharing our resolutions, our triumphs, and our setbacks with so many more people than we would have in a less-wired era? Does New Year's online inspiration help or hurt?

Over at our sister site Lifehacker on Monday, Rod Ebrahimi wrote that showed that telling "a few supportive individuals" about your goal could be very helpful in increasing your chance of success. That's hardly astounding; it's not really news that encouragement from friends makes it easier to stick to a resolution. But what if you're not telling just a few close friends or family members, but instead broadcasting your goals to an entire social network that numbers in the three or four digits? What's the impact then?

The research is contradictory on the correlation between status updates and self-esteem. One 2010 study found that those who posted more frequently on Facebook had lower self-regard (and were more likely to suffer from narcissism). A slightly more recent study from early 2011 came to the opposite conclusion, indicating that more frequent Facebook use had a positive, healthy effect on self-image.

So does sharing a New Year's goal to lose weight on Facebook — complete with check-ins at the gym and detailed descriptions of menu plans — help you stay on track? Or does it just set you up for greater disappointment or humiliation when (or to be more optimistic, if) you break your resolution? And maybe just as important, what's the impact that sharing your resolution has on your 578 friends?

This is a particularly timely question. The last year has seen an astonishing proliferation of "thinspo" (for thinspiration) and "fitspo" (fitspiration) postings, particularly on Tumblr. Communities of friends source and share images of beautiful toned bodies, ostensibly to inspire healthier habits. (There's also "reverse thinspo", which involves the unhappy practice of posting pictures of obese people in order to discourage eating to satiety, or to encourage a late-night workout.) As is the case with most other kinds of inspiration, the line between motivation and shaming is often blurred. As many of my students have mentioned to me, staring at "thinspo" can become almost addictive.

Sharing a New Year's or birthday resolution to lose weight (and then posting your workout and diet plan) is "fitspo" in another, perhaps more insidious form. When I asked for comments (on Facebook, of course) about the impact of other people's body status updates on self-esteem, the several dozen reactions I got were overwhelmingly negative. "There's nothing like waking up in the morning and going online in my pajamas and seeing that my friend has already run six miles", one young man wrote. "I actually go on Facebook less often on days I don't work out", another said; "that way I don't feel guilty when I see how much exercise everyone else has been doing."

Among the college students I teach and mentor, highly structured and progressive exercise programs like P90X and Insanity have become wildly popular, thanks to their promise to get users lean and ripped in two or three months. Though both programs are designed to be done at home, the companies behind both products understand the power of peer pressure. Both urge customers to join online groups to provide support; P90X even has a Facebook app that allows users to update their social network with data from their workouts. And of course, both programs encourage users to post photos before, during, and after the program to illustrate their amazing transformations.

Several of my students mentioned the allure of P90X and its rivals. Young men in particular reported the pressure to buy the program and embark on the intense daily workout regimen. That push didn't just come in the form of photos of muscled friends with remade bodies. It came wrapped in the classically American masculine language of relentless self-improvement. "I kept seeing what Insanity did for my friends," wrote Caleb, 20. "It was almost like they'd joined the Marines, just without the danger and the commitment." In a world where so many young men are accused, perhaps unfairly, of being un-launched couch surfers, P90X and Insanity offer a chance to prove one's ability to stick to something difficult without ever leaving the house. That proof, of course, comes through as much from the Facebook updates about doing the daily workouts as it comes from displaying the six-pack abs on the "after" body.

Though we've been comparing ourselves to our peers for a very long time, until comparatively recently we only saw the bodies of those whom we envied in public space and for relatively brief periods. You might have sat next to your gorgeous, apparently flawless frenemy over lunch at school or work and resented his or her body. But when you went home, that body didn't come with you (unless its owner was your roommate). Now, the photos of the bodies, the workout schedules, the diet plans and the resolutions of those you envy taunt you from your bedroom and your Blackberry.

So do Facebook and Tumblr drive unhealthy comparison, perhaps particularly during resolution season? Based on solely what my students and mentees say, the answer would be yes, absolutely. But as with so many things about social media, there are as many positives as negatives. The same technology that abets rivalry and insecurity enables intimate, real-time relationships nearly unaffected by distance. Yes, the problems of disordered eating, competitiveness and low self-esteem are spread through social media. Fortunately, the solutions can be — and will be, and are being — spread the same way.

Resolutions to get fit or train for a marathon are rampant on my Facebook this week. But on my Tumblr and Twitter this week, this lovely suggestion from Philip Galanes in the New York Times has gone almost viral:

Let's steer clear of food and exercise resolutions, which probably constitute 98 percent of the busted ones.
Join me in a single resolution for 2012: Every day, we will compliment someone who crosses our paths.
"Loved the way you helped your brother just then." Or: "Nice toupee!" It will be much easier to maintain than those abstemious ones and will create loads of good will.

My social media feeds tell me which of my friends have tiresomely given up gluten or booze this January. But those same feeds brought me Galanes' simple, happy encouragement. It's the one resolution I've kept.


Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Image via KellyBoreson/Shutterstock.