After a five month reprieve, Colette Marlor has reactivated her facebook account. Her reasons for temporarily disabling it are numerous but, perhaps the most concerning, is her belief that it influenced her approach to a healthy lifestyle.
Colette, a 35 year old mother of two, cited her worry that facebook comments were sometimes triggers for excessive dieting or compulsive exercising. “I am probably not a alone when I say that I have struggled with body image issues and compulsive exercising”, she says. Colette, a former aerobics class teacher, continues to exercise, run marathons and watch what she eats but maintains a sensible amount of self-control over her lifestyle. This is not something that comes naturally to her but she has worked to make it a priority. No more extremes. She socializes with friends of a similar mindset. Those who help her to achieve her goals within sensible parameters. She has learned that there are limits and has fought not to exceed them. However, with the introduction of facebook into her lifestyle, she found it more difficult to avoid the pressure from others who update their statuses with comments such as “lost 10 pounds by eating soup all week”, she says. She struggles to fight the urge to do the same herself. Although she has no excess weight to lose, she says, “If they can do it why can’t I?”
Online social networks are a platform from where we can show off our greatest achievements, share photos of our children and divulge information on our lifestyle. Sometimes we skim our friends’ updates picking out the ones that interest us, ignoring those that bear no resemblance to life as we know it and commenting on the ones that are most notable. In his blog, sanderssays, Tim Sanders author of Today We are Rich, labels a post “Feed your mind good stuff – a manifesto”. In this blog article, he talks about the effect of the media, in particular social media, and how it impacts our minds. He states that; “Commercial media has no incentive to be uplifting. Bad news draws headlines. Macabre coverage goes viral. Social media is much the same — other people’s fears surround you like sharks, circling your psyche.” Colette is faced, as many facebook users are, with status updates that put her in a negative frame of mind. The sharks that circle her psyche eventually convince her to exercise excessively or reduce her calorie intake swiftly.
Evidence points to the fact that our approach to healthy living is influenced by the people around us. Ongoing research from the National Weight Control Registry, (as summarized on WebMD – Creating Healthy lifestyle networks), shows that most of the 6000 participants found they needed to be very aware of their social circle in order to achieve their targets. For example, they needed to minimize contact with those who lived a more toxic lifestyle. They also found it helpful to develop new friendships with those they met in the gym, the health club, yoga class, etc. This is magnified when we consider that the advice, opinions and health choices of many of our friends is available at the touch of a button. The online network is becoming an increasing factor in our lifestyle as it grows and infiltrates our lives from our computer, tablet and smartphone; at home, at work or anywhere!
It is plausible that we are in contact more with our online friends than those in our immediate environment. Michelle Gerencser, a 40 year old single mother of three, is a regular facebook user. When asked about the impact of status updates suggesting plans of a wild night out with friends she pointed out that online social networking diminishes the need to go out and socialize for real. For her, one of the prime reasons for going out was the chance that she might meet up with old friends. Now she has weekly contact with her oldest friends online, “A cup of tea and a session on facebook is the new going out!”, she says. This emphasizes the need to extend awareness of our social circle to our online networks. Those planning to achieve fitness goals may find that facebook friends, who lead a toxic lifestyle, could damage their potential. There are more than 500 million active users of facebook world wide. 50% of these log on to the website every day and the average facebook user has around 130 friends. It is most likely that many of us do not come into contact with that many people on any given day. So, the majority of our communication with the outside world is likely to come through the internet. In cases like Colette’s, when the user has just moved to a new town, city or, in her case, country, this is especially true prior to finding new friendship groups in the vicinity. In effect, it is crucial to our well-being that we choose our friends carefully both on and offline. Some may even feel the need to take a harsh approach like Colette did, and deactivate their account temporarily or permanently.
Many people update with meals they have enjoyed, occasionally including a photo. Those in the 20 to 30 year old age bracket often update with tales of a wild, alcolol-fueled night out inviting friends to comment on their antics leaving some people feeling they have missed out and others glad that they weren’t there. Erica van Epps, a 36 year old mother of 3 and a keen runner, found facebook to be a source of emotional support whilst her husband was deployed in Iraq. Erica uses facebook in a way that supports her healthy lifestyle. She has a tendency to “hide people who are always negative”. She credits facebook with her interest in running as she saw how many of her friends were already taking part in the activity and feeling good about it. In turn, this inspired her to sign up for her first 1/2 marathon. “I am a ‘words of affirmative’ person”, she says, “so this medium is perfect for me. I love to hear a few people tell me ‘good job’ and it makes me want to be a better mom, wife, friend and runner! I love facebook!” Other people, however, feel the pressure of competition. Colette states that “when one of my running friends would post they had just completed a 9 mile run, I felt that I needed to do that too.”
A friend’s update on a fitness achievement may inspire us to join them and work towards a fitness goal of our own. Many find that facebook is a great place to swap ideas for heatlhy recipes. Michelle Gerenscer told me that her recent interest in Zumba was inspired by her friend who raved about it in a series of facebook comments.
Facebook can be a great way to connect with organizations about healthy living. Active.com, for example, posts regular links to useful, healthy lifestyle articles on a daily basis. For all its faults, it is possible to use facebook to our advantage. Active.com, for example, has around 430,000 followers. However, for every fan of Active.com, there are two Burger King followers, but this fast food giant is trumped by another: In and Out Burger, whose fans number almost 2 million. Ultimately, only we can choose our friends. Only we can choose what articles we read, the companies we “like”, the food we enjoy. Everyone can be positive and pro-active, like Erica, in the way they use facebook. Sanders says, “Whatever you do, don’t be passive about the people in your social stream — manicure it like a banzai tree. […] Make your social stream affirming.” Make yourself a part of the virtuous circle – update about your sporting achievements or healthy diet; read the affirmative comments; feel great; commit to further steps towards making your life healthy. Apply this to your friends too. Know that your updates inspire and your comments affirm. There are many healthy online groups that make it easy to share the occasional article on facebook reaching a large audience. They might grab somebody’s attention and inspire the start of a journey to physical well-being!
Colette found that the break from facebook gave her perspective. She felt liberated and no longer concerned with who was a faster runner, thinner or more popular. She used the extra time – time that had previously been swallowed by facebook – to focus on what was important to her, her lifestyle and her future. She is back but more as a quiet observer. Colette rarely posts anything or comments on other people’s posts. Reaching her goals takes precedence and no longer takes a beating from other people’s comments and updates. Essentially, we need to learn how to use social networks to to best serve our needs. Choose your friends carefully, remove or learn to ignore those who have a negative impact, refuse to comment on one friend’s drinking binge, congratulate those who achieve health goals and encourage those who make efforts to improve their lives.
Feed your mind good stuff – a manifesto, Tim Sanders
Web MD – Creating Healthy Lifestyle Networks, Pamela Peeke
Colette Marlor, 35, Minnetrista, USA
Michelle Gerenscer, 40, East Boldon, UK
Erica Van Epps, 36, Fort Knox, USA