Tara Sabo is a certified personal trainer, Greatist Ambassador, group fitness and Spinning® instructor, freelance writer, wife, and mother. She writes about these roles and more on her blog, A Daily Dose of Fit. The views expressed herein are hers.

Truth: For the longest time, I fought the whole Facebook thing. I thought it was stupid. I thought it was a waste of time. I’m traditional in the sense that I’d rather just keep in touch like old times via phone, letter, or whatever. But now, I’m all over Facebook. Mostly for fitness purposes. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even have a Facebook account if it weren’t for my blog, A Daily Dose of Fit. I understood the value of getting my blog on the social networking site, but I couldn’t do that until I, myself, was on Facebook.

So I’m on Facebook. But truth be told: I don’t use it that much. At least not in the traditional sense. I don’t post any pictures of my daughter on it. I rarely post pictures of myself on it. Status updates? Few and far in between. But, geeze… I’m on Facebook every day to keep track of my peers in the health and fitness world.

The groups and businesses I follow keep me informed. They inspire me to be my best in every aspect of my health and fitness. I am certain it would be much harder to keep track of them if I didn’t have Facebook. In fact, some of the groups might not even exist without Facebook. Facebook is the best of being social in one powerhouse of a platform. And just like Twitter, it’s a constant conversation.

That’s mostly why I love Facebook. It channels the best of the news, views and product reviews that relate to my interests, and it puts them all in one feed that fosters interaction as I see fit.

How Social Media Changes Our Health

Facebook = Social Media = A big influence on your health and fitness

Back in June, I ran the Chicago Women’s Half Marathon. Three weeks before race day, they posted an image of the finisher’s medal on their Facebook page. Let’s be honest, a small part of me loves to run races to rack up the bling, but when I find out ahead of time that the medal is extra-awesome, it makes me want to really, truly earn it.

Had I not followed them on Facebook, I might not have seen that image ahead of time. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to read the comments posted by the women that would ultimately be running alongside me. Talk about motivation!

Photo: Tara Sabo

Those comments and that image, I carried them with me from start to finish on race day. All the positivity posted on that Facebook page fueled me in some small way. But the problem with social media is that it isn’t always positive. There is a lot of negativity out there, and it can impact your health and fitness.

Social media is loaded with images that aim to influence, from the vain-glorious seflies of beautiful women on Instagram to healthy living bloggers posting daily meal recaps, it’s easy to fall into a comparison trap. I do it, and I always have to remind myself that I am not them. Unrealistic ideals and visual stereotypes exist. They are real. But so am I. I am unique and completely my own, which means that one person’s reality cannot and should not be my very own. But imagery has the power to make us forget this, and that’s where social media can fail us. And yet, it can also educate us.

4 Ways Social Media Can Be a Force for Good (or Bad)

So let’s really dive in and look at four good and/or bad ways that social media can influence your health and fitness.

  1. Social media is an endless stream of information. Participating in Twitter chats and joining niche groups on Facebook gives you access to like minded people. Updates from other runners can inspire you to push harder, and links to races can inform you of events you may never have known about. Blogs in your Feedly line up post after post of personal experiences that can semi-relate to you and your life. After all, you wouldn’t follow them if they didn’t, right? These people, their information and experiences, make you want to be your very best. To do your very best. They make you want to participate. And for some, deciding to participate in any type of fitness activity is challenge #1.
  2. Social media can trap you in a sea of self-criticism. It’s so easy to compare. It’s so easy to look in the mirror and tell yourself that you aren’t good enough, or to look in a magazine and decide you’ll never be that pretty or that skinny. Images traveling throughout social media can do that to you, too. Instagram, as we’ve discussed already, puts an endless stream of ab shots, flexed muscles and plank times right in your face for self-comparison. And consequently, self-criticism. Whenever you engage in social media environments, remind yourself: THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT ME. It’s okay if I don’t match them perfectly. Be sure to follow only those that really, truly tell you an awesome story…good abs or not.
  3. Social media links to tools and technology that make it easy to keep track of your health and fitness. From MapMyRun to MyFitnessPal and countless other social applications, you can connect yourself one step further to those that do as you do — or not! Keep yourself quiet on these platforms and use them to keep track of your own progression. They can be really great for that. But if you engage on a social level, the inspiration is yours for the taking. A recent CNN article quotes that “social features on fitness devices play three roles: They motivate people; the various interactions act as triggers for action; and sharing information and tips can increase ability.”
  4. Social media gives a voice to anyone; be wary of misinformation. Give someone a blog, and they’re suddenly a personal trainer, pumping out workouts that promise “shape-up” results or “burner” sensations in target muscle groups. In health forums where people can chat about medical issues, anyone can provide an answer that’s “right” above all others. So be really careful about the information you absorb. Pick and choose your sources wisely. For example, when I give you workouts to try or fitness advice to consider, it comes backed by my experience as a certified personal trainer. But when I dish out diet advice, though it stems from research and personal experience, it’s not backed by any sort of certification — I always disclose this to you, encouraging you to do what’s right and/or best for you. Some people don’t. And that’s not right.

Now, I try to keep it real on each of my social media channels. If you’d like to follow along, please do! I welcome you with open arms to my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts.

iPhone Photo: Jason A. Howie