We have all seen the posts of our friends crossing the finish line of a race, sharing their Strava run statistics, or going for that fabulous hike. According to researchers at Texas State University and the University of Arizona, these posts tends to influence our feelings about our own weight and body image.
Recruiting 232 study participants Stephen Rains, a UA communication professor and UA alumna Tricia Burke, a professor of communication studies at Texas State University, asked them to log into their favorite social media site and look at posts from the past 30 days from their friends. The participants counted how many of the posts – photos or text-only – depicted their friends engaging in exercise.
For the study, exercise was broadly defined as any physical activity for the purpose of maintaining fitness and health, which could include anything from hiking to taking a walk to going to the gym. Participants then chose the three of their social media connections who made the most exercise-related posts and rated their perceived similarity to each of those individuals.
They also completed questionnaires that measured their level of concern about their weight, their general attitudes about exercise, and their tendency to make either upward or downward social comparisons.
“With upward social comparisons,” explains Burke, “you tend to compare yourself to those you perceive as superior to you. So, for example, if you’re in a classroom, you’d compare yourself to the smartest kid in class. In terms of exercise, if a person is posting a lot about exercise, they must be really fit, so you’re using that as a motivator” (Burke, 2018). On the other hand, “downward social comparisons” involve comparisons to people we believe are not doing as well as we are.
What Rains and Burke found should have us all rethinking our social media habits. The more exercise-related posts participants saw on social media, the more concerned they felt about their own weight, which could result in unhealthy body image. And when participants perceived themselves to be more similar to their exercising friends, the effect was even stronger (Burke & Rains, 2018).
“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” (Rains, 2018).
“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. Similarity 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,” explains Rains (Rains, 2018).
While Rains notes that for some people, seeing their friends’ posts about exercise can be motivating, and make them more interested in exercising, it might make other people feel worse about themselves (Rains, 2018).
As social networking sites expose us to a constant stream of information about specific health aspects of our friends’ lives – such as exercise – seeing our friends posting about the run they just did may not be the best from of motivation. Instead, we may be better off lacing up our shoes and heading out the door for our own run.