Jen Selter has mastered the art of the vanity squat. On her Instagram account, the 20 year old frequently posts pictures of herself assuming the position—in the gym, on a yacht, on the steps of a plane—emblazoned with her handle “@jenselter.” Her habit of fitness motivation has paid off. As one of the social network’s homegrown celebrities, she has amassed 3.5 million followers, a fitness agent, and a photo shoot in Vanity Fair.
Personal accountability has long been a well-recognized tool to help maintain a fitness regime or exercise plan. But in the age of the selfie, this time-tested method of personal accountability has turned glaringly public. A search of “#fitness” on Instagram yields nearly 39 million posts. In addition to Selter, there’s a whole cottage industry of Instagram fitness celebrities, “Fitblrs” on Tumblr, and a bevy of fitness tracking apps like Runkeeper and Strava that automatically upload your 10K time to your Facebook or track your cycling route in Twitter.
We already know that keeping track of workouts the old fashioned way (a notebook and pen comes to mind) has beneficial effects when it comes to sticking to our goals. But posting the details of each and every run, squat, gluten free lunch, or Crossfit W.O.D. can feel a little egregious to those following along. One has to wonder: do all these fitness-themed posts amount to anything more more than an exercise in self-righteous ego boosting?
Research suggests they do. The Telemedicine Journal and e-Health found that fitness regimes with a social component are more likely to succeed as they “foster motivation, encouragement, and commonality.”
Tiffany Clifford Czajka is a Scottsdale, Arizona, based trainer who says she uses social media as a way to motivate her clients and encourages them to do the same. In her experience as a trainer, she’s found that frequent visual cues of progress really do help people commit to their goals.
“I often post pictures of equipment—bosu balls, combat ropes—for a sneak peak into the next day’s workout. It helps keep excitement going and I take pictures of [my clients] working out as well to post and tag,” Czajka said. “Pictures speak volumes, so whether you post a picture of an amazing before and after or the defined toned biceps that you have worked so hard for, it shows dedication and self-confidence that maybe you once did have.”
For those going after a longterm goal or challenge, using social media to document it also has the effect of inspiring others. Writer Anna Brones and policy Analyst Megan Ponder started their project ‘Portland to Paris: 1000 Miles’ in January. Each of them have committed to running 1000 miles in the year 2014, despite the fact that they live on different continents.
Ponder, who is based in Portland, keeps an Instagram of the project while Brones, who lives in Paris, blogs monthly recaps. The duo feels that the positive feedback they’ve received from social media is a good sign that they’re adding value of some sort, rather than just over-sharing.
“Every month that I post on my own blog, I get comments from regular readers that I know are following—and they are not people I know in real life,” Brones said. “We had someone on Instagram say recently that she loved the feed and found it really inspiring. That's all I have ever wanted from sharing—to get other people to get after it in their own ways.”
As with any goal, there are bound to be setbacks, such as a month where a knee injury put Brones below her mileage target. But the pair aren’t worried about failing publicly; they say the project is much more about the conversation they’re creating with each other and their followers.
“Ultimately, I think that sharing our journey can be inspirational to others whether or not we achieve the goal,” Brones said. “This is much more about the process itself.”