Social 'Networkout': How Social Media Motivates You to Exercise

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I am the mayor of my elliptical machine. No really, I am the actual mayor of my elliptical machine. I check into the social media site Foursquare every morning as I hit the living room where the machine resides next to my couch and sometimes again in the evening if I'm doubling up on my workouts.

Foursquare is a social media app you download onto your mobile phone for the purpose of sharing your location with your friends. As soon as you reach your destination, you "check in" and post comments about the place for others to read; for every check-in you earn points to unlock "badges" and eventually accumulate enough to earn free stuff from business sponsors.

The title of "mayor" is bestowed when you check in at a spot more times than anyone else. Then you are mayor until someone else checks in more often and overthrows you.

I've never had political aspirations but I campaigned hard for this honor. I start my workout most days before the sun comes up and sweat it out for exactly 63 minutes. Also, that I have zero competition has helped a lot.

My husband wouldn't be caught dead on the elliptical and thinks Foursquare is some kind of balanced eating plan. The one to watch is my 5-year-old. When she gets tired of playing "Angry Birds," she'll be a force to be reckoned with.

To the uninitiated, being the Foursquare mayor of a living room gym sounds like a silly waste of time. Perhaps it is. But for someone as compulsive as I am (note the 63 minutes and the doubling up of workouts referenced above), it has actually become part of what motivates me to lace up my sneakers every morning.

To me, this meaningless, uncontested title is as close to an Olympic medal as I'll ever get. And I now get credit for my continued dedication to burning calories and preserving muscle tone.

If anyone understands this, it's Erin Alderette, the longtime mayor of the Chelsea Piers Sports Center in New York. She began her term back in 2009 after joining Foursquare on a whim and, a few brief challenges from other gym members notwithstanding, she has held onto the post ever since.

One person she briefly battled for the title was Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who provided much of the original funding for Foursquare.

Foursquare Mayor for Life?

"My competitive drive, it's really strong," Alderette said in what is undoubtedly an understatement. "The thought of someone checking in and bumping me as mayor really motivates me to get in there every single day, sometimes twice a day. I don't like taking weekends off. I don't even like going on vacation."

Bragging rights aside, Alderette's mayoral tenure does have other perks. She's entitled to a free guest pass every day of her term, something she didn't know about until recently and that she doesn't find especially important.

More exciting is the level of respect she's earned from her from fellow gym goers. When an instructor recently announced that he was pleased to have the mayor attending his Yoga class, everyone turned around expecting to see Mr. Bloomberg in a spandexed downward dog, Alderette included. Once the class realized he was referring to Alderette, she swears there were more murmurs of awe than snickers of ridicule.

I wondered why being the Foursquare mayor of your workout space is a powerful motivator for some people, even in the absence of significant monetary gain or other incentives. A professional opinion was definitely in order so I asked Joe Shrand, a Harvard psychiatrist who is head of the Castle High Point Treatment Center outside Boston.

"You are not only a mayor you are the monarch of your machine, a winner," he said. "That means you are valuable, which is what we all really want."

Shrand says that a push from social media can be a healthy form of competition. On the personal side, you create a sense of accountability; on the public side, you channel feelings that might otherwise manifest as anger, frustration or aggression into something productive and goal oriented.

Not everyone is up for a heated rivalry over what is essentially thin air, but it does have applications in the real world. "It's not all that different than the competitiveness required to get into a good college, get a promotion or win at sports," he noted.

Valuable Feedback From Foursquare

I'm beginning to think social media can be more than just a trendy way of oversharing darling pictures of your kids or your high score on Farmville. It can be an inexpensive and effective tool for improving your health. You can let everyone know about your efforts by writing a blog, posting your workouts on Facebook or tweeting them out in 140-character sound bites on Twitter. If you've friended and followed the right folks, you'll get valuable feedback.

You can also subscribe to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to be in the know about the latest fitness offerings including sign ups, discounts and giveaways. Opinion aggregator sites like Yelp give you the skinny on the best gyms to join and the best classes to take. Bargain hunting sites like Groupon and Travel Zoo turn you on to all sorts of fitness opportunities you never knew existed.

How else would you find out about cool new options such as SkyZone, a nationally franchised trampoline facility that offers jump classes on Groupon for six bucks?

I think this is all great but you can get carried away. For example, I admit I flirted briefly with the idea of usurping Alderette's Chelsea Piers mayorship. But then I remembered she lives right across the street from the Piers and that, ironically, although I am not too lazy to work out like a demon every day, I am far too lazy to take the train to a gym ever.

Alderette also seems like a pretty nice person. Why sweat on her parade? So, for now, her title is safe. Unless I decide to move into her neighborhood ...

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