Exercise bragging: What it is and how to handle it

It seems every time you open up your Instagram feed, you’re probably bombarded by gym selfies and hashtags like #gains and #doyouevenliftbro.

Inspiring, or the opposite? While it’s nice to be able to share your achievements of course, it can get overwhelming to see constant updates about the #goals everyone else is smashing, and possibly even have a knock-on effect your own mental wellbeing.

We spoke to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Mike Margolies, a mental trainer and sport psychology consultant, to find out what to do when you’re inundated with exercise bragging on social media, and whether a little bit of boasting can actually be a good thing.

What is exercise bragging?

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Anyone who has scrolled through Instagram or has a friend who enjoys working out a little bit too much will have experienced the phenomenon of exercise bragging.

It’s someone who’s so proud of their workout that they want everyone to know about it. Immediately.

Whether it’s a friend insisting on telling you how far they ran before 7am that morning, or posting on Instagram how much they lifted during their gym session, exercise bragging is increasingly prevalent.

Whitbourne says: “In general, people use social media to emphasise whichever aspects of themselves they think will make them look good to their followers.” In terms of exercise, it’s normally to show off how fit, buff or trim someone might be.

Why do people seem to show off more about exercise than other areas of life?

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Whitbourne says: “The reason exercise has fallen into the category of things people brag about is that it is promoted by a great deal of media hype about its benefits.”

It’s also become increasingly acceptable to post about your incredible workouts on social media, thanks to hashtags such as #fitfam.

Not only is it easier to control the image you put out on platforms like Instagram, but Whitbourne also says the impersonal nature of social media makes bragging easier.

She says: “Online activity doesn’t have the real-life component of being such a faux pas – you don’t get the feedback from those in your social group that you do in face-to-face communication. “

Is it ever a good thing?

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Even though there are definitely negative aspects about bragging about your exercise regime, if done in moderation, it’s not necessarily the worst thing.

Whitbourne says: “There’s nothing really wrong with it, and in fact it’s actually good for the health of the world for exercise to be seen as a worthwhile and ‘braggable’ activity.

“It’s certainly preferable to bragging about such bad habits as drinking, driving fast cars, and other risky behaviours.”

But there definitely are dangers in bragging about exercise. Whitbourne says: “Positivity is fine, but when you feel you need to out-do others with how great your life is, it could mean you’re trying to cover up feelings of inadequacy.”

Margolies advocates “bragging to someone in order to help yourself”. He, however, draws the difference between arrogance and bragging.

He uses the term “bragging rights” and says: “You have to be able to brag to yourself. You have to be able to say to yourself that you did good today.”

How best to cope if you’re inundated with people showing off about their workouts either on social media or in real life?

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Whitbourne recommends: “If you are feeling shamed by the braggers who are exercising more than you are (or at least say they are), I would suggest that you avoid getting into a competition with your social media or real-life friends.”

It’s all about finding out what works for you – whether it’s exercising a lot or very little. Take a step back, and don’t do anything just because you feel pressured by people around you.

Whitbourne says: “Don’t feel you need to be a wall-climber just because your friends are. Find other outlets for your desire to work out.”

Before a session with a client, Margolies makes them list three things they’ve done in the past week that they are proud of. He aims to build up their self-confidence, and you can do the same by doing the same.

This will do much to stop you from comparing yourself unfavourably to others, and boost your own self-confidence instead of being fixated on what somebody else is doing.

Margolies says: “The most important person in your life is you, and you need to tell yourself that you’re doing well, because that’s what makes it worthwhile to get up the next day and go do your workout.”