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How to Beat Social Media’s Competitive Exercise Culture

Even the most athletic folks can get discouraged by what they see on Instagram.

by Miranda Martin
December 11, 2019 | Health

Exercise can boost your mood, give you more energy, fight mental illness and increase self-esteem.

But there's a darker side to exercise, too. Namely, the health and exercise culture we see on social media. Social media is flooded with images of people completing race after race, attending fitness classes daily and sharing their workouts. It can make others feel like they need to be training for a marathon at all times.

Healthy competition can be good when you’re trying to improve your game. But when you're simply exercising for the health benefits of exercise, constant comparison can make doing it more of a chore.

Although seeing small doses of others’ success can be inspiring, a constant feeling that everyone is doing more than you are can create burnout. Even people who have always enjoyed moving their bodies can get discouraged by the social media highlight reel. Here's how to exercise only for yourself.

Do the exercise you love

If you hate running, don’t run. If lifting weights makes you want to quit the gym forever, stop lifting. If you fall asleep during yoga, don’t take another class.

You don’t need to be doing the “popular” exercises to be fit. Cut back on the exercises you hate and focus on doing what you truly enjoy, and you’ll be able to keep exercising long-term.

Tara Laferrara, a personal trainer and group fitness professional, shared that even as a healthy lifestyle influencer with 106,000 Instagram followers, she has gotten caught in this trap before.

“I ran three marathons and hated every one," she said. "I only did it because that’s all I saw my peers do. I felt like I had to do it, to post that I did it, and get the comments and accolades about doing it.

"Did it make me happy? Nope. You have to find something you enjoy, instead of trying to please everyone else around you disguising it as your own happiness.”

When people participate in activities they feel like they have to do to measure up, they view the gym as a chore rather than a self-care activity they want to do, making them less likely to go.

Picking an exercise that you enjoy makes it much more likely that you'll keep going back to the gym, week after week.

If you don’t know what you enjoy yet, that’s okay. Give yourself permission to try different activities and focus only on how you feel about them.

Ice skating, going for walks, playing basketball with friends, taking a ballroom dance class or rock climbing may not be something that would impress everyone on your feed, but it might become your newest passion.

Remember that social media is a highlight reel

It can be tough to see everyone posting their success on social media, but it’s important to remember that social media is not what it seems.

“You have no idea what someone else’s life is like, or their training — if they’re being healthy, do they have an eating disorder, are they struggling, too?” said Marissa Taffer, a former professional dancer and dance instructor. “Even the outtakes and bloopers, people still edit, photoshop. You cannot compare your real life to someone else’s highlight reel. Anyone can fake that.”

As a dance instructor, Taffer constantly worked with students wanting to learn certain skills solely because of social media.

“I would have people walking up to my classes, saying, 'I want to learn this trick I saw on YouTube,' she said. "Well, I have no idea how to do that and if I teach it to you wrong... you could fall and break your neck."

Impostor syndrome can happen to anyone because of social media, even to Melissa Huckfeldt, a bodybuilder who competes in the National Physique Committee.

“Scrolling through pics of workouts or their post-training 'pump' can be detrimental to mental health," she said. "Feelings of inadequacy or self-worth run wild, and that mentality makes me doubt if this is my place to be.

"Slowing the scroll and having boundaries with social media is critical as a bodybuilder. My best advice would be to learn to set the phone down, devalue social media and find value in the present life."

Laferrara shared what she recommends clients do when they aren’t sure if they are exercising for themselves or for social media.

“Try things because you want to. Get outside your comfort box, not because you see someone else do it, but because you want to try and find something to make you happy. Friendly competition with yourself is fine; it’s when you bring in people that don’t matter that gets you in trouble.”

[ICYMI: With a Buddy's Help, These People Achieved Their Goals. You Can Too.]

Focus on why you exercise in the first place

If you are exercising for heart health, there is no need to climb a mountain in a different country. You can achieve the same health results doing whatever you are comfortable with right at home.

If you are exercising to improve your mental health, you don’t need to complete some super-intense race to get some endorphins flowing.

Remember why you exercise, and aim for fulfilling those goals, whichever way feels best to you.

"I was always searching for motivation in the wrong places, when (it) should have always come from within,"  Laferrara said. "Sometimes now I’ll see a movement or lift that I see someone do better (or) heavier than me (on social media) and think of that as a goal, but I’m never stressed about it anymore."

Miranda Martin
Miranda Martinhas written for FloSports, Ms. Magazine and more. You can contact her at [email protected] or visit her website to see more of her writing.
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