When we consider social health we are exploring how we develop relationships, how we communicate and how we connect with people.

This piece is going to look at how social health is coming to prominence alongside mental health. Why it is important that gyms and active spaces become involved in supporting social health. And what activities and experiences can these businesses develop to effectively support their members and develop their business together.

Social health naturally crosses paths with mental health as both are health components of the mind influenced by external forces. Their cause and effect loops are infinitely linked, but to focus on social health is on the influence on the people around us. Some examples include:

  1. Loneliness
  2. Comparison & Body Image
  3. Work-Life Balance
  4. Confidence and adaptability in social situations
  5. Conversation, Collaboration & Respect
  6. Relationships

These pretty broad examples manifest in a relatable sense through

  1. Lack of connection to friends & family
  2. Exclusion through exclusivity
  3. Not being true to yourself in all situations, such as defining health by what’s in the mirror
  4. Struggling to ensure family and friends remain a priority in difficult situations
  5. Gymtimidation
  6. Avoiding judgement

It’s probably safe to assume that most people have found issues with at least one of those six examples over the past week, yet how prepared do we feel to manage them consistently with confidence?

As with mental health, I find this conversation frustrating to convey effectively. The conversation in developing these components of our health seems passive and non-committal. The ideas are abstract and dynamic, ultimately being a unique perception to everyone — and to many a non-concept entirely. Trying to push the importance of these issues and inspire action is difficult with these barriers. It is commonly society that dictates broader social health. The world around us has constant influences on our behaviour, in many cases a sharp tilt to negative, and it’s tough to push back against that, even when delivered from a health perspective.

In a similar way to the perception of mental health, social health only becomes apparent when it is something we have a problem with. For us to truly take action on social health we have to be preventative in our support. The best way to solve a problem is when the pain or problem level is at 1 or 2, not 9 or 10. This will ultimately come down to the importance each person places on their social health. If we place the perspective of health on this crucial area of life then support can be channelled through active spaces.

As with any health component, the first stage is the awareness and connection it has to the values and character of the space. You’re not yet trying to solve particular problems associated with social health, just engaging with the foundational understanding of its importance. That already has powerful implications as it opens the member up to having the self-reflection required to understand when problems within their ability to interact with others is breaking down in some way.

The rise in social health problems over the past decade has ironically been fuelled by social media. These platforms have brought so many benefits in connectivity, but it’s the health issues that remain the growing challenge. Though as with all health aspects it is an incredibly dynamic issue — blaming social media flat out isn’t the answer.

Body Image

Let’s take the example of body image

For context 9 out of 10 men have experienced anxiety because of the way they look. 30% of teenagers have a desire for ‘toning’ to look better. In a study of 7000 ‘normal and healthy weight’ women, 70% had a desire to lose weight.

On social media, there is no shield to public scrutiny, with bodies being viewed and judged every day with the most desirable rising to the top and become the benchmark to which expectations are set. While social media never defined what makes for a desirable body it does reinforce the views of the majority of us that use the platform, both consciously and subconsciously, every day as we spend hours scrolling through these apps feeding the algorithms.

The fitness industry wants to celebrate healthy bodies, especially those that have gone through a healthy transformation. ‘Look at her abs showing’ or ‘look at the definition on his arms and shoulders’ are a lot more appealing than ‘her risk of type two diabetes has lowered significantly’ or ‘his focus on resistance training will help him as he ages’.

I think one solution to this is celebrating the body but putting a primary focus on the non-visual outcomes. Making the mental health, energy, confidence and capabilities central to the ‘transformation’. The more we put aesthetics as a by-product of success the less importance it will carry to the consumer.

We’re unlikely to ever shake the fitness industries obsession on body image given how tightly wrapped around societies perceptions it has become. But what we can do is reduce is the weight of impact on those who judge themselves based on what they see in the mirror, vs how they feel.

A big step around member retention is moving the focus away from body image as the key reason for being active. Fluctuations and perceived failures are key reasons for people to fall off their health journey. Making clear the social health issues related to body image and perception provides further fortification of health as the core component of fitness.

There’s more here — need to link it to some of the foundational ideas of social health and the capacity for this to be a huge health component.

Social Health & Communication

Another example of social media’s impact on social health comes through communication and polarisation.

Time to go deeper.

There are plenty of sensitive subjects that we are all entitled to have an opinion on, but the often divisive nature of issues has formed polarised camps for those engaged and disconnection by those afraid to say something out of place. We are in an era where healthy communication has broken down and debates and discussions are formed with malicious intent and divisive outcomes.

From a social health perspective that results in the majority of people being pushed in to opposing viewpoints or being disconnected from important issues. By linking these issues to health we are able to use the communities that are formed in active spaces to have honest and constructive discussions about important issues in a safe space. It encourages those quick to form an opinion to listen more and allows those who feel they don’t have a voice to be given a chance to speak and be listened to.

I believe that the communities formed in gyms are some of the strongest and have the potential to play host to important discussions. These scarcely take place in society and utilising these community frameworks allows for the connection of social health to broader health development. The emotional power and release of endorphins when you help someone become a better person is equal to that of a good workout. We should treat these with equal importance in developing our complete health.

Fitness focused gyms may feel uncomfortable or out of their depth taking on this responsibility, but there is room to find the right moderator to keep the focus on constructive conversation. They don’t even have to take a side. It is simply the creation and utilisation of the space (physical or digital), to deliver improvements in social health.

The leaders of active spaces understand the importance of each component of health and ensure that their members concerns are being addressed to support their health and happiness. The business opportunity here is to demonstrate your commitment to each members social health. This goes a long way in community development as well as bringing in new customers that see the opportunity to develop this area of their health in one of very few safe spaces.

Social media aside we know that politics, race, identity and a global pandemic are bombarding our social health on a daily basis. These are unavoidable aspects of life and there is a rapidly growing need for support and perspective.

Taking Action

Something I’ve been grappling with for a while is how we come to address social health problems given the very nature of the problem. A problem with social health is social health. The first step is believing it’s a problem — it resembles the stage mental health was 5years ago — not fully understood or spoken about, and if it was it was seen as a sign of weakness and not a real component of health. A key reason for this is we lack the spaces where social health is important. It has never had a home within the fitness industry and the dynamic nature of its ideas make it as much a part of health as politics, race or other important areas of dialogue.

Talking openly about social health is certainly a starting point, just as it was with mental health, but we need structures for managing problems and actively building up our social health. Instead of waiting to have relationships problems, we proactively make ourselves become a better partner. Instead of being racially insensitive, we gain understanding. Instead of loneliness, we find connection.

I find it frustrating that ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke police’ and xxx have scared people away from being involved in conversations that we should all be having and taking action to better our social cohesion. Damage done in spaces such as political spheres has caused the deterioration of communication in the spheres of influence of fitness — body positivity or body shaming — mentally strong or fragile — confident or anxious — the idea that views and opinions can range on a scale is obsolete.

Just like with physical fitness we train so we don’t experience poor health. These rules of training to prevent and enhance can be applied to our social health across dimensions

Nike & Social Health

Nike has made their commitment to social issues and backed this purpose with sponsorship, advertisement and content that aims to promote and educate on social issues that impact us all.

Nike is perhaps the biggest brand in sports and fitness, but why should it be just them? It should be that benchmark that every company in the various associated industries is trying to achieve. Sure they aren’t perfect, but if every independent active space were to signal their commitment and development to social health issues then it will drive societal change from the bottom.

Social Health & Community

Actively working to enhance relationships, communication and cooperation will naturally be the strongest tool in strengthening your own community. With social health being an active and purposeful part of your community values you will see a greater commitment from members to engage in experiences and have a desire to support other members health.

The community space will be developed into a safer space for holistic health development making it an increasingly valuable asset to each member as they navigate their complex health journey.

An important outcome of a cohesive community is the formation of a unique Health Hub (we go into this structure in more detail here). But a key component is having an exclusive part of the internet that is void of misinformation, bias and negativity. This creates the opportunity for a ‘collective brain’ to help manage problems and answer questions that members are struggling with. A common issue many face on their health journey is the wildly inconsistent advice coming at them from all angles completely eroding trust and confidence. A community that has a loose hierarchy with coaches advice rising to the top and experienced voices structuring conversation will enable members to ask questions they may think are ‘obvious’, or explore some news or ideas that many are struggling with. The minds of many who actively care for each other are an incredibly valuable asset to your overall service.

Social factors are at the heart of why we make so many of our decisions. Cultivating a community ethic within your business does incredible things for members health well beyond their commitment to fitness development.

How Can Gyms & Active Spaces Build Experiences Around Social Health?

Tackling industry-related issues primarily is certainly a good place to start. Creating support strategies surrounding body image issues, communication and community will make for excellent experiences that will enhance the health of your members and encourage more people to see your platform as a health-supporting service, instead of just fitness.

Going deeper, I think the best strategies will be the ones that are wrapped around your values, character and ethos of your space. You have created a community of people that believe in your brand and how you see training and physical health. These people will share key demographic points which will influence the social health problems they are facing. It is equally an opportunity to make these assessments of your community and identify which areas of social health they are likely to be managing without support.

Something as simple as a class on confidence can be the catalyst for a member to engage with their first advanced paid challenge. Leading to greater participation and commitment to their health journey and your services.

Social health can ultimately offer your service more in a crowded online market for fitness services. For anyone reading this that delivers health & fitness, especially those in leadership roles, this presents the opportunity to take action on issues that your members are struggling with every day. There is value in solving these problems for consumers who are willing to pay for the guidance and community that comes with addressing the increasing challenges of social health.

Once you have an understanding of the social health issues that you want to support then you engage in the process of building a health experience. This involves 5 steps.

  1. Discover — talk to your community. Identify areas they are struggling with personally
  2. Develop —  Think outside the box and create a better understanding of how your community would resonate with an experience like this.
  3. Practical — Using emotion, learning and communication to craft an insightful and empowering experience that changes their perceptions and actions long term
  4. Specialise— Invest further in your success. Bring in coaches and specialists that can apply greater scope for development in this experience or broader application
  5. Commitment  — Create the structures for personalised and long term development by engaging and connecting members in community arenas.

You can find full details of how to create an engaging and profitable service for your members here.