Athletes online: Research finds technology is fuelling exercise addiction

Twitter_Logo_WhiteOnBlueHeadline points:

  • My research has found that the risk of exercise addiction in ultra-endurance athletes (marathon runners, long distance cyclists, half / full Ironman triathletes) is 44.7%. This figure is higher than has previously been reported in other sports.
  • My research also found that endurance athletes using connected health technologies (such as fitness trackers) and social media in their training are increasing their risk of becoming addicted to exercise.
  • Athletes who use lots of technology and are at risk of exercise addiction are often using technology to seek out an online community to cope with the loneliness of their training. These online communities support athletes, but also facilitate them in extensively comparing themselves against other athletes which can cause them stress, increase injury risk, lower potential performance and reduce enjoyment in their sport.

New research I have just published has found that technologies which are often designed to help those with poor fitness to increase their exercise levels are also being used extensively by ultra-endurance athletes and the ‘stickiness’ of these tools is pushing some of them into exercise addiction. Those using a large number of technologies in their sport were found to have the highest risk of exercise addiction. There was a significant positive correlation between the level of use of fitness technology and risk of exercise addition. 4.6% of the variance in risk of exercise addiction could be explained by the level of use of fitness technology. While the strength of the link was not large it is important as fitness technologies, especially trackers and social media, are now used so much by athletes.

The same research found the level of ultra-endurance athletes who are at risk of becoming addicted to their sport is 44.7%. Across the key sports this breaks down into triathletes (46.1% risk), runners (44.3% risk) and cyclists (39.6% risk).

Exercise addiction usually begins as a beneficial activity but over time progresses to a state that is pathologically excessive. When the person uses exercise to modify their mood, requires increasingly higher doses, gets frustrated and angry at the thought of missing a session, sees physiological changes if they try to withdraw and then relapses when stopping, they risk losing self-control over their exercising. The tipping point is often when the compulsion to exercise is prioritised over other parts of the athlete’s lifestyle; harming their social relationships, work focus or family time and causing conflicts. It can have damaging effects such as injury, personal inconvenience, marital strain, interference with work or reduced time for other activities.

The research found the most commonly used technologies by ultra-endurance athletes were; GPS watches or trackers (92.2%), online trackers (84.3%) and Facebook (70.2%).

In my research I found that exercise addiction is a really under researched area, but one which is important for sports psychologists, coaches and athletes to know more about as it can cause such distress for athletes, and sometimes their families too. Diligence and focus is necessary in order to be a great endurance athlete but when we get too absorbed and inflexible around our training, particularly if we are intently tracking our data, we can lose sight of our real goals and cause ourselves harm.

The study saw that the high technology using, at risk of addiction athletes, were often using technology to seek out online communities to help them cope with the loneliness of their training. The in-depth interviews with these athletes found while they really valued these communities, the technologies also allow them to extensively compare themselves with other athletes. This comparison is causing them stress and pressure, increases their likelihood of getting injured, lowers their potential performance and reduces their love of their sport. A particular risk on relying on the online community for support comes when an athlete gets injured. It can increase the isolation they feel and prompt feelings of jealousy or despondency about what they cannot do. If they are training as a coping mechanism for other things (often stress or mental health issues) then not being able to train, and losing all support mechanisms at the same time, could exacerbate the original issues.

I also found that the gamification of some of these technologies, alongside personality traits which see athletes work incredibly diligently towards their sporting goals, means that they can get fixated by the data and have a strong adherence to using the tools. What was eye-opening in this study was that technologies like Strava or Garmin were driving some athletes to deviate from their own ‘real life’ goals. This reduced their chances of achieving success and, far worse, increased their risk of injury. The way these technologies allow athletes to compare their data to others can cause some to worry about what others think and is pushing them to question themselves or second guess their coaches or training plans. In some cases, the athletes reported this had caused them to become injured or to burnout. Others stopped them enjoying their sport and began to label themselves a failure.

Q&A:

Why do you only talk about ‘risk’ of exercise addiction rather than exercise addiction?

In studies like this we tend to assess risk of exercise addiction rather than diagnosed exercise addiction as an addiction needs to be diagnosed in a one to one situation directly with a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. It would be irresponsible to try to do this online. What we can do online however is identify if the indicators of exercise addiction are evident.

What can athletes who are worried they are addicted to their sport do to tackle this?

Athletes worried they may be too absorbed in their sport in a way that could be causing them harm should read the following statements and consider how many apply to them:

  • My exercise is incredibly important to me
  • I have increased the amount of training I do
  • I use exercise to improve my mood.
  • I struggle when I can’t exercise
  • I feel guilty when I can’t exercise
  • When I stop exercising for a while I always go back to it and often with more intensity
  • My sport gives my life a focus and I can feel aimless without it
  • Competing in my sport has caused conflict with friends, family or work.

If they recognise themselves in a significant number of these (particularly the point about causing conflict) then it would be beneficial to seek treatment. Currently CBT and motivational interviewing are the suggested routes to try.

What are the main risk factors for exercise addiction?

Previous research has found an athlete’s addiction risk increases:

  • When race distances get longer
  • When training hours increase
  • When the level of competitiveness rises
  • As athletes get older
  • If an athlete has a higher BMI
  • If an athlete has an eating disorder
  • When certain personality traits (narcissism, extroversion, conscientiousness, excitement-seeking, perfectionism and achievement striving) are strong

Who took part in the study?

  • 255 amateur endurance athletes (average age 41 but ranging from 19-70) completed an online survey in the summer of 2017.
  • Eight of these athletes who have a risk of addiction and use a lot of technology in their training were also interviewed in depth about how they use technology.
  • On average the participants:
    • Had been competing in their sport for 9 years and 3 months.
    • Train for 10 hours and 16 minutes a week.
    • Have a risk of exercise addiction of 22.74. The measure use gives scores from 6 – 30. Anyone scoring 24 or over is considered to be at risk.

What technologies are ultra-endurance athletes using?

The most commonly used technologies were:

  • GPS watch or tracker (92.2%)
  • Online tracker (84.3%)
  • Facebook (70.2%)
  • Twitter (39.6%)
  • Posting on a forum (35.3%)
  • Using an online training diary (34.5%)
  • Being in WhatsApp group (27.8%)
  • Listening to sports podcasts (18.4%)

10 tips… for athletes setting up a Facebook fan page

Facebook

Facebook is the second most popular social networking site in the world with over 1 billion active users. With Facebook it is essential to choose how you would like to use it; as a personal communication tool to stay in touch with friends and family (especially if you spend lots of time away on training camps or competitions), or as a way of promoting you and your sport. If you want to use it for promotion you can either make your regular page open to everyone (which has lots of risks) or you can set up a fan page which can be used for more general social media posts.

A fan page means you can separate out private and public information, and build a more external focused community. There is a limit on the number of friends you can have on a regular page, but no limit to the number of likes a fan page can have. These pages are also indexed in search engine results, so they can be found more easily. You can make someone an administrator of a page on your behalf so they can post for you if you are in competition mode and trying to get into the bubble and staying away from all social media. It will allow you to reach thousands of potential fans by creating a large base of followers, which in turn can help you get funding and sponsorship.

  1. When you set up your fan page the most important thing is to use your name or, if it is taken, differentiate by using your sport. My sporting ability is not worthy of a fan page however if I was significantly faster in my sport it would be Josie Perry Triathlete.
  2. Once the page is created make your profile a professional picture, your cover picture a great action shot and make your biography relevant and up to date. Include links to your other sites (Twitter, Instagram, blogs or website). Make sure you have the right to put up the pictures you do so you don’t end up with a large copyright bill.
  3. Many Facebook pages look unprofessional, are out of date or just look like they were set up to try to get sponsorship. So doing yours properly will make it stand out positively. Great content will get you more followers (or Likes) so really focus on creating value for followers so they feel they get lots of benefit by following.
  4. Decide what you would like the tone of your content to be. Do you want to be seen as funny and entertaining? Factual and interesting? An expert on your sport? A commentator on your sport. Choosing this tone early on helps you put out suitable content straight away.
  5. Take people behind the scenes – what more do they learn from following your page that they wouldn’t see without it. The daily routine of training may be dull to you but the life of an athlete is interesting to many people. If you are travelling to competitions shots from the country you are in are great, and any insight for how things are done differently in the country you are visiting.
  6. Put up your schedule of matches or races – with links to buy tickets or ways to get involved (even race themselves).
  7. If you have any tips or information you have been taught or told by the experts who support you (physios, psychologists, strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists) then share these. This technical expertise will be really well received.
  8. You can upload video directly to Facebook so it plays automatically in your friend’s news feeds. Facebook’s algorithm likes videos which are directly uploaded so they will get more exposure. Think about what might be of interest; particularly training or prep before competitions. A highlight reel of matches or races. Something which works well for this is a video diary around big events so people can see how your training is going leading up to your competition or big event. If you have a high enough profile you can host a Q&A to answer live questions yourself or for you to interview experts you work with.
  9. If you want to give extra thanks to sponsors and more value for their sponsorship you can give them some space on your page with their logo, reviews of their products and how you use them, run a give-away of their products, put up posts with discount codes, put up videos of you using their products or speaking to their staff at company days, thank them for their support. You can use your page to thank others who support you like your coach, physio, strength and conditioning coach, psychologist or nutritionist.
  10. You can share other people’s content: You can set up a Google Alert to find out if anything is posted about you online (it will send you an email if your name is mentioned on a website) and then share that. You can also use a website called Mention (mention.com/en/) to tell you if anything comes up online about your sport so you have access to the latest news and information on your sport to be able to share with your followers.

 

10 tips… for athletes to get their LinkedIn looking slick

LinkedIn

LinkedIn used to just be thought of as the site for job hunting but it is now used much more widely; particularly by journalists and conference organisers so if you are looking for ways to promote yourself, get sponsorship or have a platform for finding work when you retire being on LinkedIn could be really helpful. It has over 500 million members and is the fourth most popular social media site so there will be a lot of people on there who could be helpful to you. Think of it as your online CV.

To get your profile looking professional you need to follow the following guidelines:

  1. Professional profile headshot for your picture – no holiday snaps – you want to show you could do a great job as an ambassador for a company.
  2. Add in a background photo of something highlighting what makes you special; could be of you in competition, or on a podium or meeting school children.
  3. Put in current responsibilities or expertise – this is the first thing people read.
  4. Think about the key words people might use to find you. Athlete, runner, footballer, spokesperson, leader. Drop these into your text where it works.
  5. Have you got any videos or photos of your competing? These would be great to add. Also add any press cuttings or interviews you have done.
  6. Filter the skills and endorsements so they match what you want to be known for.
  7. Try to customise your LinkedIn URL so you are easier to find. If firstnamelastname is already taken add ‘athlete’ or your sport to the end.
  8. Make your summary stand out. 2000 Characters. Use them well. Think about the key words people are likely to search for or the search words you want to be found by. Add in anything which makes your expertise or experiences significant.
  9. Build your network quickly by adding friends, other athletes, competition organisers, college or university alumni (if you attend / attended), leaders and influencers in your sporting field, your sports governing body staff and key clubs in your area.
  10. Join some groups. Pick some for interest and a few to get involved with. You will then pick up on interesting debates, wider connections and if you are a member of the same group as another user, you can bypass the need to be a first-degree connection in order to message them. When you connect with someone it is not just them, it is their network. So use it wisely. And be careful when you receive requests from people you don’t know.

10 tips… for athletes who YouTube

YOuTube logoYouTube is a great way to create on online visual portfolio of your sporting career. It can show sponsors or coaches how dedicated you are to your sport and how passionate you are about it. Videos are also a great way to show off any specialist skills you have.

  1. Don’t feel you need to follow tick boxes on YouTube – videos can be as long or as short as you want. But start off with a couple to get your channel up and running. You don’t need brilliant video editing skills. You can usually do everything you need on your phone or laptop.
  2. It sounds very simple but think about the name you pick for your channel. It needs to be fairly sensible if you are to be taken seriously as an athlete. What may be funny now won’t be if a sponsor decides it is too out there to represent their brand effectively.
  3. Keep what you post fairly tame – no changing room shower shots, controversies, or outspoken rants. It isn’t worth the fall-outs of potential sponsor rejection.
  4. Think about the title you use for each video so it is easy for people to find it when they search.
  5. Leave really positive, encouraging comments on other athlete’s videos and they may come watch yours. Engaging on other people’s YouTube feeds will help highlight that you also produce great content. So be active with creating content and commenting
  6. Use your other social media channels to link to anything you put up on YouTube.
  7. YouTube is all about creating great content that people want to watch. If you have a team mascot then you can have great fun doing races or games with them before or after a competition and posting the video.
  8. If you have a tough strength and conditioning workout do little ‘shots to camera’ throughout it explaining what you are doing and why and post it up afterwards.
  9. If you have good nutrition then videos of you baking healthy sports specific food can be helpful for people. Making your own sports drinks or energy bars can give other people great ideas and is valuable content.
  10. Short video diary extracts for any announcements you make about your sport, matches or competitions or injury breaks you are taking will also be of interest.

10 tips… for athletes who Instagram

InstagramInstagram is brilliant for athletes as what you are doing every day creates fabulous aesthetics. It can give a behind the scenes peak into your daily life as an athlete with the ups, the downs and all the hard work. Here are 10 tips to get the most out of time on Instagram.

  1. If you feel sub-conscious or too shy promoting yourself perhaps think about it as not promoting yourself as a person but as an individual doing your sport to try to inspire others and bring more people into your sport.
  2. Set up a professional looking profile. The pictures can be the same as your twitter pictures with your headshot picture being you in kit and your background picture being a mid match or competition shot. In your biography you should include your sport and club and link to your club’s Instagram feed.
  3. Rather than think of Instagram as an online photo album it can be more effective to think of it as a way to tell your story – sharing videos of your training or straight after competitions will give some insight and help people see the journey you are on with your sport. This helps inspire and build a genuine connection.
  4. Remember our stories won’t always be perfect. In fact they almost never are. Our lives don’t travel in a nice straight line. We all have ups and downs and you will connect much better with people if you show this. Don’t do it to the detriment of your career (ensure you don’t post anything which gives your competitors one-up on you) but, where you can, be honest about the struggles and loses you have, and about the learnings and wins. This will make you a much truer ambassador for your sport and show you as an authentic athlete.
  5. Use hashtags so your shots can be found easily by people not yet following you.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously – have fun with it. Make beautiful pictures which authentically show your life – both the fun side and the hard working side.
  7. Follow others. This will help build up your followers and give you great ideas on what to share. It also helps you see great content you may want to share with others. Key people to search for will be other athletes, nutritionists, exercise experts (rather than influencers), psychologists, coaches and physiologists.
  8. Use filters. They make a big difference to how frequently they are viewed. A research project through Yahoo Labs found filtered photos are 21% more likely viewed and 45% more likely to have a comment made on them. So use them liberally.
  9. Every month or so look back through your posts, see which ones received the most likes and comments and tailor your future content more along these lines.
  10. If you struggle to think what content you could post consider including:
  • Photos from workouts and exercises – these can give people examples and ideas
  • Meals you eat which are great for supporting your training – with the recipe on another picture so other athletes can try making it too.
  • Quotes or tips which have helped you see things differently or inspired you.
  • Travel pictures of where you are training or competing.
  • It can be nice to sometimes have a theme to your pictures such as having your club mascot pop up in some shots or taking shots from a certain angle.
  • Join in ‘days’ such as Medal Monday, Transformation Tuesday, Throwback Thursday, Flashback Friday or SelfieSunday.

Ten tips… for athletes to grow twitter engagement & followers

  1. Follow other athletes in your team or club, athletes on the national team for your sport or other athletes in your sport you admire or are interested in their career path.
  2. Follow the governing bodies for your sports; at local, national and world level.
  3. Think about the companies whose products you currently use and companies you would like to be sponsored by and follow then, join in competitions and engage with them.
  4. Follow the media organisations and journalists who cover your sport, your local area or your hometown (if you have moved away) and retweet with comment any relevant stories they publish.
  5. Follow coaches and support experts in your sport – retweet any great articles they share.
  6. For all these people tweet them to say you have joined twitter and ask if there is anyone great you should be following. People often enjoy being asked for advice and offering tips.
  7. Check the big organisations in your sport, see who they follow, who are they retweeting and who they interact with and follow them.
  8. When you see anything of interest to others in your sport retweet it, sometimes offering your own comment.
  9. Put your twitter handle on your website, Facebook page, email signature and any printed material you do with sponsors so you can continue to grow followers.
  10. Do your twitter yourself. Some high profile athletes have an agent or manager tweet for them but this can feel unauthentic and followers realise they are getting something corporate and filtered rather than the actual views and perspectives of an athlete.

 

10 Tips… for athletes using Twitter

Twitter_Logo_WhiteOnBlueIf you are going to use just one social media site make it Twitter. It is a great way to publish information, engage with fans (your own and of your sport), to market yourself and appeal to potential sponsors. While most of the 1.3 billion people with accounts won’t see your tweets, if you work hard to build a great content feed and grow your followers you can make an impression on the people who can help your sporting career. Here are 10 tips to help use twitter effectively as an athlete.

 

  1. Have a professional profile name – not a comedy name you gave yourself years ago and thought would be a giggle. Your twitter name should be as close to your real name as possible as this is how people will look for you. If your name is already taken you can add your sport to it. The easier you are to find the more it will be used in the media and so you’ll great more followers.
  2. Have your profile picture be a professional headshot of you in your sports kit. This is often the shot a journalist would use or a company you are speaking for may pick to put on any information about you so it needs to be one you really like.
  3. Use hashtags as these are easily searchable and it means more people will find your tweets if they are trying to find out more about a subject. To find the best hashtags to use there is a tool called Hashtagify (hashtagify.me) helps you decide. You type in a keyword that stands out from whatever you are sharing and it gives you other important related hashtags.
  4. If you have any type of public profile in your sport put out news on your social media first. This means people follow you to hear news first and you reward  those who follow you with exclusives.
  5. Decide on your twitter tone and stick to it. You need to be yourself and authentic so let your personality and humour shine through, but ensure you don’t alienate anyone or be rude to others. Some what ‘not to do’ ideas from professional athletes who have screwed up can be found here. https://performanceinmind.co.uk/2016/09/28/the-ten-social-media-mistakes-athlete-make-most-often/
  6. Having a good variety of positive, professional and interesting posts is key. These could include information on kit or sponsors, charity or awareness campaigns you are involved with, match or competition comments, community work, training, nice comments about team or club mates, the build up to matches or competitions and thank yous to people for coming to watch you.
  7. Join in other people’s conversations. Only get involved in things you know about or want to learn more about but this will help you show you are an expert in your sport as well as competing in it. Learn from others and offer your opinions and sporting expertise.
  8. Use photos (they get on average 35% more retweets), videos (28% more retweets), quotes (19% more retweets) and hashtags (16% more retweets). If you have professional photos taken at competitions or matches and they go up online retweet them or ask to use them. These are striking and get followers attention.
  9. If you want to get the best engagement there is a tool called Buffer (buffer.com) which looks at all your tweets and measures what time people interact with you most. Then you can schedule tweets for these time periods.
  10. To make great content, take people behind the scenes of your life and your sport. Think about how you can be useful to your followers. Insight into your sport, interesting facts or figures, comments on competition will all be of interest to sports fans. Show people what it is like to do your sport. Changing room photos or videos (but these must not embarrass anyone else), training shots, little videos of gym routines can all be of interest.