How do our friends' gym selfies — and other exercise-related social media posts — affect us?
The reasons behind why we — and our friends — may want to share workout successes on social media are manifold.
Perhaps it's simply a way of tracking this difficult journey and seeking motivation through our friends' encouragement.
Or maybe we try to send motivational messages ourselves, implying, "If I can do it, so can you!" (Though why not go ahead and admit that it's probably just honest bragging?)
But what response does posting about these achievements on social media elicit from friends and followers? So, beyond the "likes," little hearts, and comments of "you go, my friend!" or "well done," how do these posts influence others' psyches?
Stephen Rains, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Tricia Burke, at Texas State University in San Marcos, have recently led a study investigating "the outcomes of receiving [social network] posts about exercise."
Fitness posts and body image
The researchers' findings — published in the journal Health Communication — indicate that people who see a lot of fitness-related posts from their friends may become more self-conscious about their own bodies.
"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 Rains.
In their study, Rains and Burke worked with 394 participants, of which 304 provided complete sets of data. Of these, 232 participants "reported engaging in at least some exercise," so the final sample was restricted to this group.
The participants were required to access their most-used social media account and view the posts that their friends had entered over the past 30 days. They were then asked to count how many of these posts were related to their friends' exercise routine, which could include a broad range of physical activities — from walking to attending a gym.
To assess the impact of such posts, the participants were then told to identify the top three "fitness posters" on their friends list and to say how similar they thought they were to each of those people — considering, for instance, whether they had similar backgrounds, body types, or ages.
Finally, they were all asked to complete questionnaires in which they reported how they felt about their own weight, what their attitude to exercise was, and whether they were likely to make "upward" or "downward social comparisons."
Here, "upward social comparisons" refers to thinking of somebody else as a person that you aspire to be like, and "downward" comparisons refers to perceiving others as being "less than."
"Our results were mixed," reports Rains, noting that the impact of exercise-related posts on the viewers could work out both for the better and for the worse.
"Good can come out of this, in the sense that it can make some people more interested in exercising and feel better about exercising, but it might make other people feel worse about themselves if they're more concerned with their weight."
It's all down to peer perception
Rains and Burke noticed that viewers' reactions to exercise-related social media posts were largely dependent on their perception of their relationship with the poster.
"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," explains Rains.
He also adds that "[s]imilarity 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."
Thus, in the worst-case scenario, individuals who perceived their exercising peers as being very similar to themselves in other respects became more worried about their own weight, and their body image was more likely to worsen.
Positive effects, however, are also possible. People who more readily engage in upward social comparisons, looking up to friends, and striving to better themselves will likely use their peers' exercise-related posts as motivational leverage for their own fitness efforts.
"With upward social comparisons, you tend to compare yourself to those you perceive as superior to you," notes Burke. "In terms of exercise," she says, "if a person is posting a lot about exercise, they must be really fit, so you're using that as a motivator."
At the same time, people who give free reign to downward social comparisons tend to look down on their peers and will not be affected by their social media posts in any way.
Rains and Burke also note that social media remains a largely mysterious outlet when it comes to understanding how it affects its users.
"This is all still pretty new ground, and we're trying to make sense of what it means, and if and why it matters," notes Rains.
Burke concludes by saying that their next step from here might be to find out more "about why people are posting about [their physical exercise efforts] and how they make decisions about what to post."