Words by Tonya Nelson
When computers first splashed into the mainstream, they brought with them a set of stereotypes about their average user: the socially-awkward, chubby, unhygienic nerd still living in his mom’s basement. Now, a vast majority of Americans have a computer, but that classic image of the slovenly basement-dweller nonetheless persists. The cliche seems to be one of the entertainment media’s favorites — for proof, just check out the most recent Die Hard or any of the crime scene shows like NCIS that have a computer specialist or hacker character. The stereotype runs into trouble, though, when it encounters some recent data.
In 2008, The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 52 percent of people search specifically for information on exercise or fitness. In 2011, it found that 27 percent of Internet users track their weight, exercise, or other health indicators online.
Fitness communities such as Cassie Ho’s drive that trend. Ho started Blogilates, an online Pilates and fitness community, in 2009 after graduating from Whittier College. Since then, the number of her “POPsters” — people who follow Ho’s blog and are fans of her “POP Pilates” — has exploded, with more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, more than 60,000 Facebook fans, and more than 17 million views on YouTube.
Roni Noone, founder of BlogToLose, started blogging about her weight loss in 2005 as an experiment in personal accountability. She started the blog so others could tell their stories, sharing and receiving support in their quests of weight loss. Now, her community has more than 6,000 active bloggers focused on getting fit together. Weekly #FitBlog Twitter chats, started in 2010, see hundreds of health professionals and beginners join the fitness conversations each week.
“I believe that social media can be one of most important pillars to fighting the global obesity problem,” says Ted Vickey, a Ph.D. researcher at the National University of Ireland, who studies social networking and fitness. “Report after report suggests that the number one reason people don’t exercise is (lack of) time. Now that technology has given us more time, what if we could create a tool that could persuasively assist a person in finding the time and motivating them to exercise? That would be a great step in the right direction.”
Gyms can be intimidating, overcrowded, or inconvenient — just picture Archbold on a Thursday night. So for some people, the draw of online fitness, which can transform any open space at home into a personal gym, is clear. Social media can make at-home workouts just as personal as working with a trainer. Ho uses Twitter and Facebook daily to ask followers what they’d like to see next, like a targeted arm workout or a cardio video. She frequently posts workout commands (“Turn up your favorite song! Do sit-ups. Finish the song and DO NOT STOP! GO!”) and motivational quotes to keep the POPsters going strong.
Community is key to fitness, because people often look to others for motivation. Dr. Miriam Nelson, nutrition professor at Tufts University and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, and Jennifer Ackerman, a science and nature author, discovered the power of relationships and their association with positive change in their book, The Social Network Diet: Change Yourself, Change the World. The women write about the “ripple effect” in social networks, where you influence your friend, then your friend’s friend, his or her friend’s friend, and so on. Social change sparks from one person’s shift in behavior, and can encourage others to make some positive change in their life.
“I learned that people networking together can make real, enduring change,” Nelson writes. “In order to create this sort of sustainable change on the obesity issue, we need to address it at a large scale, at the community level and beyond; that many
small shifts can add up. And I learned that social networks are immensely powerful in driving positive change.”
Pushing through difficult workouts may seem like a big challenge when starting out toward a fitness goal. But learning to work out safely, especially for a beginner, can be even harder when trying to mimic new moves without direct help. Denny Krahe, a nationally certified athletic trainer and founder of DK FitSolutions, believes working with a professional on a personal level provides beginners with better instruction on correct form and technique — something a video can show you, but ultimately can’t correct.
Vickey says combining online fitness with personal instruction may be the best way to avoid this problem and achieve more effective workouts. “People need to have a basic understanding of fitness and a way to create a long-term workout plan,” he says. “To maximize results, that should be done by a certified personal trainer. I suggest anyone turning to the web for fitness advice look carefully at the website, make sure the information is following sound, scientific advice and is safe. Be cautious, be careful, and find the right team — either online or offline — to help plan your journey towards health.”
Though there are many encouraging health professionals online, tons of rip-off health gurus attempt to dupe the innocent Internet searcher. Some of those phonies promote unhealthy diets, unrealistic workout plans, and flat-out wrong information. Unfortunately, figuring out who’s credible and who’s not can be challenging. Even safe, legitimate sites find the occasional negative user, posting discouraging comments or false tips.
“Finding good information online requires a little bit of diligence, some common sense, and a little luck,” says Krahe. “The biggest thing is finding the first few sites that are offering honest, topical advice. Then tune in and pay attention to the people they reference. For example, on Twitter, if someone you trust is re-tweeting information from a source you don’t know, there’s a good chance it may be a good source. Good people share information from other good people. But finding the first few is admittedly a bit difficult.”
But Vickey says the reward for finding a good source is worth the effort. “Social media and technology will tear down the four physical walls of a gym and allow a person to experience the gym how they want, where they want and when they want,” he says.
As apps and social media platforms progress, fitness and technology will naturally grow together, Vickey says. So despite the computer-user cliche they may conjure at first, sites like Ho’s Blogilates and Noone’s BlogToLose have major benefits and are also a glimpse of the fitness future.