Social Media and Reality

One of the greatest and worst things for society has deceloped during my adolescent and adult life: social media. Facebook has morphed from the place where all the cool young kids hang out to a Baby Boomer social club.  About 10 years ago my  friend Corey told me I HAVE to quit Myspace and join Facebook, which I did.  Little did I know that it would bring  people together in so many ways while also keeping us from making real connections.  How many of us has "friended" someone we don't know very well, if at all, and have had no interaction with on social media?  All hands probably go up.  We can be as close or as far as we want.

Instagram gave rise to some extremely cool and unique ways to connect.  Sharing pictures of our life experiences is a great way to see a snippet into someone else's world; you can feel a kindred spirit with someone else or glimpse into a lifestyle you had no idea existed.  Videos brought that to the forefront even more.  But putting your life on display can make it hard to truly be real and honest.  Who wouldn't only want to show the best side of themselves or highlight the absolute ideal scenarios of their life?  

Facebook has become the go-to online marketing platform and with ever-decreasing attention spans, not many people really want to read long posts or sit through (gasp!) a five minute video to connect with someone else.  The instagram lifestyle has taught us to curate our life into 60 second videos that we can edit and adjust to look like the idealized versions of ourselves.

It's almost never as it seems

This post isn't just about that, though.  Many of us can see through that and realize that a girl sitting alone in a field with the caption "just needed alone time, got this candid shot of me contemplating life" simply cannot be real.  Someone had to take the picture or the picture needed to be staged so the person could set their camera up and pose within the frame.  The shots of people "just rolling out of bed" look conspicuously done up, perfect and in great lighting might make us feel inferior for a moment but we can rationalize that, like many things on social media, it's probably not transparently true.

I'm actually OK with that, to know that Instagram, Snapchat or to a lesser degree, Facebook, act as a highlight reel of your life.  If we can go into this experience knowing much of what we see is just the best people have to offer than we can assume most of the time they are normal people as well, with issues, flaws and failings. As much as I love watching MMA and seeing a great match between two opponents, whether it's a decision, K.O, fast and explosive or long and drawn out battle.  But I also LOVE seeing highlight reels.  "Jon Jones' best knockouts" or "Cro Cop's best kicks" are a fun thrill ride but I enjoy them more when I have already seen the full match and can go back and re-live the highlights.

Just seeing the highlights tells you nothing of their training, conditioning, strength or how hard they had to work during the match to achieve victory.  Likewise, seeing someone with 8% bodyfat on Instagram doesn't tell you whether they are really dialing in their nutrition, training well and structuring their entire life to achieve that goal...or just taking steroids and getting a pump. We only know what people choose to show us and even then what is shown can be misleading.

If we can process this, take into account we usually only get to see the highlight reel of people's lives and that it may all be filtered and edited anyway, we can set more realistic expectations for ourselves.

Comparing to the not-quite-real narrative

One thing I cannot abide, though, is that attitude of many young professionals in the fitness and nutrition world who seem to have it all at a very young age, while offering their services, advice and instruction for a hefty fee. This whole post has been leading into the Instagram account of a young athlete I stumbled across who is a sponsored athlete through a nutrition company.  While I am happy that so many people are able to make a non-traditional living coaching online, I think many of us, especially those of us who are adults with heaps of responsibility, should take it with a grain of salt.

Let me be clear, this person may in fact be a lovely person with great advice, knowledge and intentions.  However, I am highlighting this particular profile because I realized how many adults with children, mortages, full time jobs and myriad other responsibilities who scroll through fitness social media looking for help and then comparing themselves to this person.

This person in particular is a well-liked and highly followed Instagram fitness personality.  She is a full-time Crossfit athlete which I can only imagine is a sh**-ton of physical work. She's also a sponsored athlete through a couple different companies who provide her with food, supplements, training gear and endorsements. I know from reading interviews that traditional athletes in the Olympics get paid so poorly that they have to seek sponsorship because their training literally is full-time, if not more, and to compete at the highest level they need money to live while preparing for the Olympics.  Makes sense to me and I can see how this person in discussion might need to do the same.  No problem there.

However, a quick scroll through her feed shows lots of free stuff coming in the mail, pretty much all of her meals purchased from Whole Foods hot bars, meal prep services or other pre-made options and a life lived in and around the gym. If you've been to a place like Austin you know many people live life like this and it's pretty solid when you're young, have free time and the weather is always amazing.  Train, walk over to Whole Foods, eat from the hot bar, walk over to Starbucks, get a coffee, chill in the sun for hours.  It's much preferred to driving 45 minutes to the gym after working 8 hours then driving home, feeding the kids, paying the bills and preparing to do it all over again tomorrow.

This athlete also happens to offer services for nutrition coaching, training, lifestyle and has all sorts of tips, videos and blurbs about living your best life.

She's 23 years old.

Rise of the 23 year old gurus

The kicker for me is NOT who this person is, what she does or who sponsors her.  She probably is living her best life, having a great time, achieving her dreams and making solid money. The issue I take is how many adults compare themselves to a 23 year old sponsored athlete and then feel guilty about not going to the gym 6 days a week, feeling too stressed, having a lot to manage, not having enough money for all the supplements they should take, wanting to get a tan, live life in gym clothes and show it all off over social media.  

If you are an adult with responsibilites and life experience you know how different things are from when you were, lets say, in college.  What you thought was a lot of stress then seems so insignicant to now.  Having to worry about paying a mortage, changing your child's school district, taking care of an elderly parent, switching careers late in life, going through a divorce.  Whatever it is, the stress of full-fledged adulthood makes living the way you see people on social media pretty much impossible.

While I was scrolling through her profile I thought of how many people wanting to lose 40lbs, do their first pullup, start eating healthier or compete in their local Crossfit games could see this profile and start thinking of all the ways their are falling short. You know people are going to compare themselves and even reach out to this person for help after seeing how amazing her physique and strength is.  I chuckled to myself thinking about what life advice a 23 year old could give to a 45 year old.  Maybe I am wrong but I see this comparison all the time when clients present someone they aspire to look like or have the strength of and I need to remind them that they have WAY more on their plate than just getting into the gym to bench press more often.

We've fallen into the trap of missing out on what we actually can do for what we want to do. One of my biggest coaching lessons for adults with kids and letting them know it's not only OK but probably ideal they only train three days per week. Sure, you might want a complete diet overhaul but maybe you only eat veggies once per day.  Perhaps you want to take fat burners and estrogen blockers but you are only sleeping 5 hours a night. And oh yeah, you aren't freaking 23 years old.  

None of this is to criticize this 23 year old athlete.  The criticism is on the viewer who has lost the ability to rationally think about, plan and attack their goals.  We're probably all guilty of it to some extent, myself included. Sometimes my shoulder will ache after a long week in the kitchen chopping potatoes, onions, eggplant, trimming beef and chicken.  Then I kick myself in the gym for not being able to straight bar bench but I forget that years of doing a repetitive task prevent me from doing so.  It's not that I did anything wrong, it's just the nature of life.  Sometimes I am so absolutely tired from work and then I kick myself for not being that motivated to go to the gym, but I have been standing for 16 hours.  For instance, two Saturday's ago I was at the tail end of a long work week, I bought a fridge that ended up not working and had been waiting weeks for it's replacement.  When it finally showed up two Saturday's ago, the driver had no help and while I was cooking I had to take 20 minutes out to help him move it off the truck, down the bulk head, into the basement and then repeat the process in reverse with the non-working fridge. 

I don't have kids so I don't know nor presume to know what it's like to manage that after a full day of work.  But I do know what it's like to feel like you are being sapped for enetgy when you feel like there is none left to give.  And THEN you still have to go to the gym and squat.

Stress management

All we have as people with a lot of stress is stress management.  What can you give up, what can you change, what can you adapt or streamline?  We're so inundated with social media stacking the deck against us in terms of expectation that we only think of adding more stressors.  But the answer often lies in giving things up.  I wrote previously how I had to scale back from 5 days a week of training to 3.  I've given up watching more Netflix for sleep.  I've had to hire more people to help share the load at work.  

Coaching people means helping them do the same.  Realizing that getting closer to the body and strength you want (not to mention your health) is more a game of subtraction than addition. Comparing yourself to someone who has so much more room for the addition of stressors in their life is not just unfair, it's damaging.  You're probably already accomplishing a lot and taking care of more people than just yourself.  Going strict Paleo, Keto or Vegan in a household of three other people might not be totally possible.  Getting to the gym more might be out of your current budget.

I love looking back at the old training journals, photos and interviews of bodybuilders, strongmen/women and physique competitors from earlier years before social media. So many of them trained three days per week, got more time outside in the sun, ate whole foods and didn't have access to supplements and truly seemed to be enjoying life. Many old-time bodybuilders were also full-time soldiers, these weren't sponsored athletes making money from 60 second Instagram videos and ads.

Your first question on the road to your ultimate goal is what can you manage?  Attack that first. For most people it's around 3-4 days of training per week and a reliance on whole foods, while controlling their calories and getting enough protein.  That leaves a lot of room for whether you prefer bodybuilding, powerlifting or just general fitness.  Low-carb or high-carb.  Paleo or non-paleo. There is so much success to be had from  wringing every last drop out of the basics that most of us never need to go past that.  What you see all over social media is a push away from what's practical and an appeal to our ego, fear and insecurities. Talk to people in real life next time you're at the gym.  Someone's mom just diet, someone is a nurse working the grave shift, someone got laid off and has no expendable income, someone only has that 1 hour of the day to themselves to take a break from the grind of life. Now list all the ways they should be doing things according to a 23 year old's Instagram profile and dig up all their insecurities.  You don't need that and neither do they.

What should happen when you see a profile like that is the ability to appreciate what you're seeing, take it with the context of your life is not their life and glean only the most practical things. This is like watching a cooking show but not realizing you don't have the experience, equipment, space, time or team of people helping you prep all the food, then feeling bad when your meal doesn't turn out the way it did on the show. For me, as a professional cook, I view cooking shows as largely entertainment and nothing else because I see that they don't give enough context or information to really help people get better at cooking.  Julia Child is a notable exception because she did things in real time and often made errors or adjustments while filming, which is so much more true to life. 

Social media is largely the same: entertainment.  It is not a guide to everything you should and need to be.  There is good information out there but it's lost in a sea of misrepresentation and out of context scenarios. The next time you feel the uprising of insecurity, guilt, fear or shame when comparing yourself to someone else, ask yourself why you are doing that.  What do you hope to gain from comparing yourself to someone half your age with half your responsibilities?  Why not choose a role model in a similar situation to you? 

As you get older what needs to happen is a reassessment of your goals. You also probably need to be able to do more with less.  3 or 4 really productive training sessions rather than 6 fluffy sessions.  A more serious approach to food intake rather than lots of money on supplements.  Choosing exercises that don't cause pain! Being honest about how much you sleep. You can do a lot of dumb stuff when you're in your 20s and still see progress.  One of the biggest limiters to success for adults in their 30s, 40s and up is trying to do the same dumb crap they did when they were 20.  Late night scrolling through Instagram to get inspired for training is like late night scrolling through your phone contacts for a booty call. It's never as a good of an idea in the light of day.

I'll harken back to this one more time: Social media is not reality.  It's largely entertainment.  Find someone you can look up to and aspire to who has similar goals and a lifestyle as you.  Vet them out too,. Only you are in charge of who you follow and your feed and social media interaction can be as posivite or negative as you allow it to be.

Awhile back I wrote about why less training is often better, especially for busy adults, check it out here: Is less training better?