Democratizing Fitness: How Social Media is Transforming Exercise

I’m not getting any younger. None of us are.

Up until a certain point, it’s actually pretty easy to ignore that fact. But once you’ve passed that point, well, suddenly you have to be a lot more aware of your body and how it’s doing. The classic Louis CK bit – “So, how long do I have to do these stretches till my arm is fixed?” “Oh, it’ll never be fixed. That’s just a thing that you do forever now” – comes immediately to mind; while still relatively healthy, I suffered a decade of lower back pain and then topped it off with shoulder surgery. I needed to change my habits to ensure I stayed relatively healthy and pain-free.

So, in the last year or so (actually 531 days if you check my instagram, but that’s really neither here nor there), I’ve begun to get very into fitness again thanks in no small part,  to the influence of my friend and personal trainer in New York City Leandro Carvalho. From the beginning of our relationship, he impressed on me the importance of not only keeping fit and eating healthy, but enjoying myself in the process as well, and encouraged me to take small steps in that direction.

My “before” pictures tell the tale on their own. “Small steps” is quite literally where I started; I made the nominal investment of purchasing Fitbits for myself and my whole family; the fact that I’m probably a little too competitive by a hair certainly contributed to my rapid embrace of walking to meetings and taking the long way when I had to pop in and out of the office. What really hooked me though was how quickly I discovered I wasn’t alone in this. Not even close. I started posting about my modest progress on Twitter and Instagram, and found, bubbling beneath the surface of such an obviously sedentary activity like social media, a truly massive, highly engaged, exciting, and excitable community of fitness junkies emanating positivity, inspiration, and very real support. They were using social media not only to connect, but to effect positive change in their and others’ lives on a real day-to-day level by creating systems of accountability and encouragement – all with very real, very meaningful results.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about social power. Do you remember flash mobs?

I’m sure most of you do, but just in case, it was a big trend in the early-to-mid 2000’s. A little bit pre-social media, the earliest flash mobs were improvisational surrealities coordinated via SMS on hard-button flip phones, the same technology Twitter was originally designed for (and the origin of its 140 character limit). It was simple enough; a text would go around saying, “come to Columbus Circle at 3pm wearing a Santa costume and prepare to do the Thriller dance.” And lo and behold, they would arrive, decked in red and furry white, ready to rock like zombies.

It was weird.

But it was also huge. A fad, yes, and one that faded relatively quickly, but one that gave us a glimpse into the massive power of the new technological interconnectedness and its ability to bring together large groups for a single purpose. And that was well before social media became the massive, dominating force it resembles today, fueling everything from Black Lives Matter to the election of Donald Trump; it was still in its infancy, but flash mobs presaged technology’s ability to make things happen by creating communities and movements – even if only long enough to knock out five and a half minutes of dancing like Michael Jackson.

Now, that fitness crowd I discovered last year on Instagram? They’ve leveraged the power of social media to create something truly extraordinary, and something muchbigger than periodic absurdist flash mobs. It’s something durable, long-lasting, and real. It’s a community built, unlike most of the internet, not on hate or anger or frustration, but on encouragement, support, and even friendship. It’s a positive place, full of positive people trying to bring about positive change in their own lives. And it’s been growing. There’s a growing network of personal trainers who are turning the internet into a body-positive workout space, where millions of people are all about that #fitlife.

The phenomenon is growing, part of a larger decentralizing trend that has let mass movements grow relatively quickly; people who want to get fit no longer need to track down and hire an expensive trainer; they can turn to YouTube, Instagram, or some extremely impressive and vast fitness streaming services like Beachbody On Demand, which provide access to everything from high-quality workouts with elite,  well known and iconic trainers of our time to nutritional guidance at a relatively low cost to over a million subscribers nationwide. The co-founder of Beachbody Carl Daikeler, whom I’ve known and admired for decades summed it up perfectly: “By combining ongoing technological innovations with easy access to a vast library of proven programming plus constant peer support, we are seeing more and more people get excited about living a healthier lifestyle. It’s still about the human experience, but enhanced with technology.”

It’s not just that getting fit has never been easier; it’s that the information infrastructure has been so thoroughly democratized that fitness education is no longer being monopolized by only high-cost gym memberships. Anybody can now access these resources connect with support groups, and participate in conversations that encourage them to stick to their goals, beat their personal bests, and keep raising the bar.

In short, the same technological developments that once let crowds of twentysomething post-college grads stage on-the-spot absurdism is now empowering people to improve their lives, and – critically – rewarding them with a nice little dopamine boost for doing so (in addition to actual friendships and second families). Every like, every retweet, every random comment is a little treat that floods your brain with happiness chemicals and helps you to keep moving. That’s a big part of why the fitness community thrives online; it means you don’t have to embark on your fitness journey alone.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is how, while these communities came into being and continue to thrive online, they aren’t confined there – much like flash mobs of yore, they have a tendency to manifest in real life. Noting that same phenomenon, Daikeler has said, “With everything we’ve accomplished and continue to strive for as a company, what I’m most proud of is the lives we’ve touched, the community we’ve built, and the people we’ve brought together.”  

In fact, at Summit 2016, an annual gathering hosted by Team Beachbody, the fitness company gathered a crowd of over twenty-thousand people you see in that picture for an unprecedented and massive group workout in the streets of Nashville last year. They came from all over the world, members of the energetic Beachbody community, professional trainers, coaches, Instagram inspirers, stay-at-home parents, and fresh-faced fitness enthusiasts, to bliss out with some body positivity on a mass scale. And they’re doing it again right now in New Orleans, because they’re actually building a movement. It’s a highly-emotional and cathartic event – connecting distant, but strong bonds and friendships in person (in some cases for the first time ever) – and I’m fascinated to be experiencing it for myself this year. The ability to bring people together, to reinforce the bonds of community and remind them of both what they’re a part of and why they’re a part of it, is a truly remarkable feat of modern technology and a clear demonstration of the power social media has gifted us.

That’s how you keep up the momentum and the spirit. It’s what keeps a movement alive: reinvigorating goals with the bonds of human connection through trainings, workshops, workouts, and one-to-one interactions with the very trainers they’ve been working out with in their own homes daily on whatever device or screen they prefered to.  Movements are powerful things, and thank God, in this day and age, we have one built on such a strong, positive idea: that we can feel good and be healthy.

It’s like my old friend and mentor in my youth Jack LaLanne once said:  “Physical fitness takes commitment to exercise just as it requires good nutrition. But it doesn’t have to be painful. Just the opposite: Vigorous exercise actually is stimulating. It boosts your energy levels, invigorates your mind, and just feels good afterward. The hardest part, of course, is getting started.”

The members of this community have overcome that first hurdle; the rest, they’re doing together.

Originally Posted on HuffPost.