How much do you share about yourself on social media? It’s one thing to post about your ups and downs for family and close friends; it’s another to figuratively bare all in front of colleagues, clients and even strangers. Yet, some health and exercise professionals assert that genuinely opening up on Facebook and Instagram about their private lives, including various vulnerabilities, has a profound and positive impact on how people perceive and respond to them as businesspeople. Is the blurred line between private and public on social media an asset to fitness promotion? And how much is too much when it comes to sharing personal narratives?
Showing Your Vulnerable Side on Social Media
If you’ve ever shared something close to the heart on social media, positive or negative, you might have noticed a bump in engagement as people rally around you to show support or commiserate. Success stories do well on social media. But there’s something about a personal challenge that resonates even more. Why? Perhaps it’s the human connection. Everyone struggles at times; still, most people don’t openly admit it, especially in the fitness industry where we emphasize enthusiasm and “no excuses.” Despite this backdrop, or perhaps because of it, a social media post that is genuinely vulnerable is just so human, and people respond to that.
“I’m in this to make a positive impact as a teacher, coach and trainer,” says Peter Twist, MSc, President and CEO of Twist Performance + Wellness, based in Vancouver, B.C.
“When I personalize something, it generalizes to everyone in ways they can relate. I’ve learned that not only is it impactful and people appreciate it, but they find value in it.” In fact, people tend to remember personal posts in particular, says Twist. It makes sense: raw and relatable stories stand out on platforms that are rife with posturing and photoshopping.
“The pictures and videos most people are exposed to on social media have had work put into them, thought was put in, the outfit was planned, the moves were choreographed, only the best take is shared,” says Marc Coronel, an international presenter based in Las Vegas, Nev., and Senior Master Trainer for multiple fitness brands, including Under Armour and TRX. Social media users are accustomed to seeing everyone in their best light. Consequently, Coronel notices greater engagement when he posts with authenticity in mind: “If you’re transparent with your content, to a degree, you’ll get transparent interaction,” he says.
Perhaps transparency can help counteract the deleterious effects social media has on many users. For example, research suggests that scrolling social media is associated with increased loneliness, fear of missing out and depression. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reported that subjects who limited their time on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat to just 30 minutes total per day for three weeks showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression compared to a control group that did not limit social media use (Hunt et al., 2018). In another study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the act of passively scrolling through social feeds was correlated with depressed moods and feelings of inferiority (Aalbers et al., 2019).
With this in mind, consider how the social narratives you create—through every message and image you post—could be either gradually distancing you from others or drawing them in. Have you ever rolled your eyes at a friend’s constant #livingthedream posts? Rather than publish only what’s highlight-reel-worthy, it might be more powerful at times to elicit responses such as, “Wow, I didn’t know you struggle with XYZ like I do” or “I’ve felt that too, so I can relate.” According to Dominic Frazier, owner of Frazier Fitness Human Performance and Nutrition Coaching in Detroit, Mich., “Knowing we are all similar in many ways draws us closer.”
Studio owner Sandi Knox knows this firsthand. Thinking she should only show one side of herself on social media, she avoided sharing personal content. “I used to think I had to post perfect pictures and videos and meals, and no junk food or struggles or personal life,” says Knox, an award-winning trainer and co-owner of Body Balance Fitness in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I now know that I missed many opportunities to help others move forward.”
Posting more about her private life, including content about her own health and fitness journey, has helped Knox bridge the gap between herself and her clients and prospective clients. “My audience now sees me as a fellow human being with normal everyday struggles and not just as a fitness professional,” she says. “This has also had a positive effect on newcomers attending my fitness studio. Many followers have said that what I was sharing on social media made them feel like they already knew me and that made them want to experience my fitness studio and online programs.”
Says Frazier, “One of my biggest moments of being vulnerable was when I opened up on social media about having epilepsy, a neurological disorder where the brain shuts off and I have seizures. I had always posted things in support of epilepsy awareness, but when I posted my own video speaking about how I lived with it, the feedback was overwhelming.”
“No one should feel alone or isolated in what they are going through,” says Knox. “If people see fewer perfect posts on social and more real struggles and victories, the better the chance they’ll reach out to get help and change.” From this perspective, it’s worth exploring how occasionally posting about our own challenges or vulnerabilities might actually help inspire people to start or keep up with exercise.
How Your Posts Might Draw More People Toward Health and Fitness
The fitness industry is still puzzling its way through how to get more people active. Social media might be able to help, but likely not through gym selfies and impossible-feats-of-strength videos. Health and exercise professionals are examples of health/fitness success, but we also know that being fit involves potential struggles and setbacks. “If we portray perfection and not reality, it can make it hard for others to picture themselves doing what we do,” says Knox.
“Sharing the challenges of our lives as we obtain and sustain fitness is relatable,” says Twist. “Openly sharing about health or other difficulties gives people hope they can get through their setbacks and rebuild a healthier version of themselves.”
Being honest about what it takes to get and stay fit could break down perceived barriers to exercise and redirect misconceptions about fitness as an endpoint (usually related to appearance). “Social posts often overlook or leave out the details about the real work that was put in, the sweat, the aches, the self-doubt and the courage needed to continue,” says Coronel. When you engage on a deeper level, your social followers might reciprocate.
“Knowing that we’re in the business of producing meaningfulness in people’s lives, I question how we would be so superficial as to just post highlight photos of ourselves in unobtainable physique pictures without at least speaking openly and with vulnerability about the difficulty of reaching that level,” says Twist.
“I’ve learned that it’s better to show the beginning-to-end rather than showing just the end product,” says Knox. “I regularly show how I’m learning a new move or program including the stumbles and falls and subsequent progression.” Knox says her clients and social followers appreciate her sincerity.
After sustaining a serious injury, studio owner and personal trainer Sheri Saperstein posted about it on social media, explaining what she did to recover and become stronger post-injury. She says her followers were quick to reach out, online and in person, with support and advice. She even attracted new followers. “People often do not realize the hardships that go along with the successes,” she says. “Showing real-life events makes people more sensitive and willing to stop, watch, read and think, rather than just click ‘like’ and scroll by.” Saperstein owns Fire Up Fitness in Stoneham, Mass.
How to Be Vulnerable Without Damaging Your Brand
Some health and exercise professionals are reluctant to share any struggles or vulnerability about themselves on social media. Instead, their posts float through the feed as testaments to perfect eating, workouts and productivity. Who can blame them? It’s scary and embarrassing to get personal on a public forum like Facebook, YouTube or Instagram. You might be judged or lose business; then again, you might receive tremendous support and gain clients. “We are now in the era of realness,” says Frazier. People are becoming increasingly impatient with posts that promote a perfect life—fitness and nutrition play a major role in that.
“Many fitness pros trade authenticity for acceptance,” says Saperstein. “They’d rather be recognized (i.e., gain followers) for their facade rather than risk showcasing their truths, thinking they will be embarrassed. They think appearing perfect draws ‘likes’ more than sharing how they really feel.” This approach echoes the fitness industry’s long tradition of promoting unrealistic expectations around exercise and appearance. Now, with social media, anyone who wants to can challenge these existing constructs.
“Featuring ‘perfection’ puts viewers under a lot of pressure to look, move and behave in a certain way that is just not realistic,” says Saperstein. “Keeping it real goes a longer way in building trust with followers, clients or people who may be just thinking about making a change.”
So where to begin? While you’d never want to showcase all your private concerns and experiences on social media, finding earnest and appropriate ways to be vulnerable, at the right moments (not all the time) can be useful for both inspiring fitness and instilling human connection.
“We want to be relatable,” says Knox. “This is less about airing ‘dirty laundry’ and more about posting with a purpose, sharing your journey openly to encourage others to reach out and join you.”
If you rarely or never share personal content on social media, start small. “Don’t shock your followers with a huge change in the way you are posting,” says Knox. For example, talk about how you just didn’t “feel it” with today’s workout, and how that happens sometimes (yes, confess that you didn’t crush it!). Or, unabashedly admit you had cereal for dinner (insert reason), then emphasize that tomorrow is another chance to make better meal choices. If it suits your style, use humor to keep it lighthearted, advises Knox.
From there, you might eventually open up further about life’s larger challenges or obstacles. Just be clear on the difference between vulnerable and inappropriate. There are numerous ways to be authentically vulnerable and a few ways that veer toward unprofessional or potentially damaging to your brand. Avoid oversharing.
“Stay professional, but don’t be afraid to open up,” says Frazier. “We are in the business of helping others—that one vulnerable post could save a life. As scary as it may be, I try to look at it that way. And look at it from the perspective of what you would want to read and see to be inspired by others.”
“The best thing people can do is be 100% themselves,” says Twist. “You just need people who highly resonate with who you are and what you’re about. You’re never going to find them unless you give people the opportunity to truly know you.”
Post Out of Your Comfort Zone
When people trust you and relate to your story, they’re more likely to reach out for health and fitness support. It’s hard to achieve this connection with obviously standoffish or picture-perfect posts. “This new way of sharing on social media has changed my life as a person and as a fitness professional,” says Knox. “I wish I would have shared more sooner. People want to see real, not highlight reel.”
Posting About Clients’ Vulnerabilities on Social Media
It’s one thing to post about your own vulnerabilities on social media, but should you ever post about clients’ struggles? The answer is, never without their permission. However, if you have a client’s go-ahead to tell their story on your social channels, is it fair game?
“Sharing the struggles and vulnerabilities of clients is a great [counter]balance to the successes and after-selfies currently flooding the internet,” says Coronel. “As long as there is honesty about the work it takes to achieve those results.” You might find that the best time to share client stories is after they’ve overcome or worked through a particular challenge or setback.
“Featuring my own clients’ stories based on their vulnerabilities is one of the most instrumental ways I’ve attracted new clients and created general awareness of my brand,” says Saperstein. “When people can relate to the challenge someone faces, and then see how this person has worked so tirelessly to transform, it inspires them to do the same.”
Aalbers, G. et al. (2019). Social media and depression symptoms: A network perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148, 8, 1454−1462.
Hunt, M.G. et al. (2018). No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37, 10, 751−768.