Who knew a Facebook group could be so powerful?

By Julia Malacoff
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Photo: ivan_kislitsin / Shutterstock

Recent statistics suggest that the average person spends about 50 minutes per day using Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. Add that to the fact that most people spend over five hours per day on their cell phones, and it's clear that we love our technology. While it's awesome to make an effort to cut down on screen time in the name of health (especially before bed!), why not use the time you spend on your phone to your advantage? That's what members of health and fitness digital accountability groups are doing, and they're seeing amazing results.

The Digital Accountability Trend

The secret behind the growth of health and fitness-focused accountability groups on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms appears to be how accessible they are. Everyone is encouraged to get involved, regardless of their level of knowledge or fitness chops. On Instagram, accountability comes in the form of check-in posts. The sheer number of posts under hashtags like Tone It Up's #tiucheckin and Anna Victoria's #fbggirls show just how motivating it can be to share your workout with a larger community.

On Facebook, the trend looks like something closer to a digital support group. "I started the Facebook group Fitness Sisters with a few close friends and family for support and motivation in my own health and fitness journey," says ChaRae Smith, the founder of the group. "The group has since grown into something much bigger than I ever imagined." Now, it has over 3,000 members. Shape's own #MyPersonalBest Goal Crushers Facebook group, led by rock star trainer Jen Widerstrom, now has almost 7,000 members (join now!).

Health pros see serious benefits to these kinds of communities. "I did an optional, anonymous survey of people who were reading my book and following me on social media," says Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, author of Body Kindness, and founder of the Spiral Up Club. "I asked what they needed to help them practice body kindness, and they overwhelmingly said they wanted online support." Through her accountability group, Scritchfield is able to connect more frequently and deeply with her clients, while simultaneously allowing them to connect with and encourage each other.

People dealing with health issues find solace and inspiration in accountability groups by having the chance to hear from others who are going through similar struggles. "I started my accountability group when I hosted my first Fit with Diabetes challenge, says Christel Oerum, a certified personal trainer and diabetes coach. "Almost 2,000 people with diabetes signed up to connect, share their progress, and keep each other accountable during the challenge." She expected to close the group when the challenge ended, but members loved it so much she decided to keep it permanently up and running. "The group now has over 12,000 members and is still incredibly active," she says. "I encourage people to share both their successes and struggles, and sometimes members will share stories that bring me to tears.'"

Gyms are also utilizing the trend to engage with members and create a community. "We noticed that members would end up staying around after their training sessions to talk with one another and many of them ended up forming friendships," says Justin Blum, CEO of Raw Fitness, a gym with six locations in Las Vegas. "We created these online chat groups to give our members a virtual space to continue those conversations. At first, it was just about giving people a sense of community and a place to connect 24/7, but it ended up being one of the largest information and support systems where members connect with one another, challenge each other, and motivate each other to reach their fitness goals."

Why Online Groups Work

Smith credits the digital nature of her group for its success. "Often times, women feel vulnerable and experience low self-esteem, especially in a society that places such a large emphasis on appearance," she says. "The accessibility of online fitness groups allows women to tackle their fitness goals in the comfort of their own home and in ways that work best for them, without feeling the pressure of others around them."

Oerum agrees that primarily online groups bring some unique benefits to the table. "The greatest advantage of a digital accountability group is that it's always available," she points out. "You can post a question or ask for support and have a reply in seconds. There's always someone online you can talk to." While there's definitely value in consulting with a trainer or dietitian in person, it's undeniably helpful to get answers and support on demand when you really need them.

There's also something to be said for the fact that many group members don't start out knowing each other IRL. "You may not want to share all your struggles and insecurities with Jenny from work or even your closest friends, but you can share them with the online group without being judged," Oerum says. Sometimes, this becomes a recipe for lasting friendships. By organizing meet-and-greet events, Smith's group helps women who have similar goals get to know each other in person. "It can be extremely powerful and refreshing to put a face to the name of the people who have been encouraging you and supporting you," she says.

Lastly, the accountability part is key. "I think most people know what it takes to be healthy; they just sometimes struggle to actually DO it," Oerum says. "It takes no special knowledge to realize that a home-cooked meal and a run around the block is healthier than pizza and Netflix on the couch; it can just be very hard to do when you get home from work late and are tired." True that. "When you feel like that, a hundred people in the group will tell you to get your butt in gear (in a nice and supportive way, of course) and help you celebrate your success after you do it."

How to Find Your Group

Convinced you need a little digital accountability in your life, but not sure how to get started? We've got you covered.

Join your gym's group. If your gym offers a social media group or message-board-type situation, get involved. If they don't have one, ask for one! After all, "your gym buddies are not going to follow you around and make sure you're eating right, so having these digital groups where people can have honest moments with one another is crucial when it comes to finding success," Blum says.

Create your own. Can't find a group that fits your needs? Start one of your own. Invite like-minded gym buddies, and you might be surprised at how quickly your community grows.

Join Shape's group. Not to toot our own horn, but if you're a woman looking for a little extra motivation and support, our Goal Crushers group could be just what you're searching for. Not convinced? Check out Widerstrom's advice on how to motivate yourself to work out even when you don't really want to for a taste of the advice she shares in the group.

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