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opinion

New Year New Me and all that crap

This is another post about the trials of social media and its contribution to modern life. So if you’re interested in that kind of thing, read on. If not, there are plenty of other places to look. Try something that says “This *X* is just about the best *Y* we’ve seen all day!” I believe they’re quite popular.

So it’s January on Thursday, and along with that comes the alleged boom time for the fitness industry, as people look down at their somewhat stretched belt lines and think that perhaps it’s time they hit the gym, and the people who have been saying “I’ll start in the New Year” for the past 5 months get the chance to put money in place of mouth. It’s also the time that regular gym members dread, as they have to put up with crowds and queues when just a month ago they had the place to themselves.

But it’s not just gym goers who feel the frustration. It’s gym owners too. Yes there is some extra cash flow, and I’ve little doubt that large chain operators will be licking their lips as they get to sell their product to people who will use it for the next 6 weeks, then slowly drift off. However for small business owners, whose business, reputation, and continued success depends on happy clients, the silly season can be as much a frustration as an opportunity. Yes these people have handed you over money, and yes they are your clients as much as the loyal member beside them, but you know that there’s only a slim chance that they will still be with you in March. Most small gyms, personal training studios, or “boxes” don’t operate on a yearly membership basis. Instead they operate monthly or short course fees. They depend on the best form of fitness marketing- happy, successful clients who spread the word. And this is where social media is both a blessing, and a curse.

I’ve noticed something in my time in the fitness industry, and if you’re a trainer maybe you’ll recognise this too. The bright candles burn out the fastest. There are certain people who come to you full of a certain type of enthusiasm. They buy all of the gear within a week or two, they bombard you with questions from day 1, and no matter how much you encourage them to take their time, they throw themselves at the training with fundamentalist fervour. Some of these people work it out and learn that slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to training, but for the most part, these people burn out and end up as your ex-client. I’ve had dozens of these down the years, and in general, they start at the peak beginner times- January being one of them.

Initially, everything on facebook/instagram/twitter is positive. “New Year, New Me! Just started training in X or Y gym/personal trainer. Gr8 first session can’t wait to get back”. This goes on for a while, maybe a few weeks. Sweat soaked selfies are the order of the day. Maybe pictures of a proud bruise from hitting pads or swinging kettlebells. But then the results don’t come as fast as expected, or rather, as fast as hoped. The photos thin out, the messages become complaints about soreness or not being able to get to the gym. Enthusiasm, the bright flame, wanes, and so does energy. This isn’t new anymore. Soon, they’re gone. From social media and the gym.

I’m speculating here. I minored in psychology and dropped it after 2 years, so don’t expect this to be an in depth analysis of the gym-goer. I think that social media can act as a sort of black hole. I know that more of you will understand this concept since you’ve been to see Interstellar. The closer you get to social media, the greater its effects. People see your life in magnified chunks of your greatest interest. The more you post about. say, your enthusiasm for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training, the more people assume that this is what you do, all of the time. They forget that you spend the vast majority of your time doing almost everything else- being a student, being an accountant, cleaning your house, sleeping, eating breakfast, drinking with your friends, watching your collection of Schwarzenegger movies, reading clickbait. Your time slows down for them. Every 24 hours of their life is just 2 hours of Jiu Jitsu in yours. You can substitute Golf, or Pilates, or Crossfit in there.

Of course, this can be intentional on the poster’s part. They want to appear to be more enthusiastic and more dedicated than the average trainee. They post gym selfie after food selfie, link after link to appear more cultured in their chosen activity. They don’t post about being on the bus on the way home from work, or about enjoying some biscuits at break time, or about eating a large, sharing size bag of Doritos while watching You’ve Got Mail. I’ve done that. Guilty pleasure.

My thinking is that all of this leads to social pressure. You’ve shared it online, now you have to follow through. And things are complicated once people begin to see you in the real world, not losing weight, not gaining muscle, not really looking any different, or heavens forbid, eating a take away. This is especially true if you’re one of the fast burning candles. You’ve made it look like all you’ve been doing is hitting the gym, but the results aren’t showing yet. This is particularly true if you’re perhaps not quite as dedicated as you’ve claimed online. Instead of enjoying the process of training and learning, you create stress for yourself by giving yourself a social media ideal-you to live up to. It’s an impossible goal, always one step ahead of the corporeal you.

There’s another factor, one that may be a little more sinister, and one that is backed up by a little bit of science. It seems that getting a little like on our post or photo might be giving us a similar jolt of dopamine, a feel-good chemical released when we do something rewarding, to when we actually perform an act. In other words, on a certain level your brain may not distinguish between actually doing a work out, versus just posting on Facebook that you’re going to do a work out and the “likes” you receive on that post. http://wjh.harvard.edu/~dtamir/Tamir-PNAS-2012.pdf.

Now the 2nd year, 5 module Psychologist in me reckons that this may lead to some Cognitive Dissonance, another player on the social media psychological chess board. Cognitive dissonance refers to a feeling of inner discomfort caused by the difference between our attitudes and our behaviours. Now we don’t need to go all science brain on this one, we’ve all seen this in action in ourselves and our peers. We know that going against our beliefs causes us discomfort. If you consider yourself a healthy person, doing something unhealthy makes you feel bad. You want to set this error right, so you might train harder the next day, go for a run, eat a salad, and generally try to do a little extra to stay in keeping with your self image as a healthy person. Or, you do something else; you rationalise your behaviour into a nice, easily managed new attitude. For example, after your unhealthy act you might say “I know that wasn’t a healthy thing to do, but I’m always very healthy and good. I think it’s okay to smoke Crystal Meth from time to time.” Not doing either of these things- acting or rationalising, leads to a feeling of discomfort. When we tell social media that we work out but then don’t, I think it has an effect on your psychological well being, regardless of whether you’re getting a shot of dopamine when you do it.

So my advice is simple. Don’t post. Or, at the very least, only post when something significant happens. Hint: showing up isn’t significant. It’s nice to see posts about goals achieved, body fat lost, medals won and so on. Your friends will enjoy seeing your success. Don’t go at it hot and heavy in January, instead, form a habit based on consistency and enjoyment, and understand that when you reach your goals, if you’ve been doing it right, then you will barely notice. It might be worth a like and a share at that stage, but your happiness won’t depend on it.

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