‘Fitspiration’ posts do nothing to increase exercise rates, but they may make followers feel worse about their own bodies

'Fitspiration' posts do nothing to increase exercise rates, but they may make followers feel worse about their own bodies

  • “Fitspiration” or “fitspo” – workout videos, images of athletic bodies, and motivating quotes on social media – does not make people work out more, according to a small new study.
  • Researchers found that viewing fitspiration content only served to have a negative effect on the mood and self-image of the 108 women in the study.
  • It supports previous evidence that so-called motivational trends on social media can backfire, leading to harmful perceptions of what an ideal body should look like.

Type “fitspiration” or “fitspo” into and Instagram search, and you’ll immediately find more than 60 million posts, most of them slim, muscular, gym-going young people flexing for the camera or in front of a mirror.

Often, they’re accompanied by motivational quotes or advice about being your best self, and making time to exercise and “eating clean” even if you work long hours or have other obstacles between you and peak fitness.

But those messages actually do more harm than good, according to a new study, published February in the journal Body Image.

The team of researchers, led by Dr Ivanka Prichard of the Shape Research Centre at Flinders University in Australia, found that young women had lower self-esteem and worse mood after looking at fitness inspiration posts. And, the motivational posts didn’t seem to benefit their exercise either.

a person sitting on a bed talking on the phone© T P/ShutterstockThe study looked at 108 Australian undergraduate women between 17 and 25 years old, and how their mood, body image, and exercise effort differs after looking at social media content.

Participants were shown either fitspiration images or travel-related images, and asked to rate their mood and satisfaction with their bodies.

Then, half the group worked out on a treadmill, after which they again rated their mood and body image, but also how hard they felt they had exercised. The other half of participants quietly played an iPad game for 10 minutes after viewing the images, and then rated their mood again.

Those who viewed fitspiration images had significantly worse ratings of mood and body image that those who viewed travel images, researchers found.

People felt more drained and demoralized when they exercised after looking at “fitspiration” content

Participants who exercised did experience slightly less of a negative effect from the fitspiration content than those who sat quietly, researchers found. This aligns with past studies showing that exercise generally improves mood and self-image.

Interestingly, while the women who exercised after viewing fitspiration reported feeling like they worked harder on the treadmill, they didn’t run much further or faster than those who viewed travel images. This means that they perceived the same amount of effort to be more difficult after viewing fitspiration content. Their overall exercise performance didn’t improve, but their mood and self-image worsened.

“When considering actual exercise behaviour, there appears to be no beneficial effect,” Prichard said in a press release. “Despite their positive intentions and popularity, #fitspiration images are yet another way to make women feel worse about themselves and their bodies.”

Previous research has shown all kinds of social media lead to worse body image and self-esteem

Other studies have shown that any social media, not just fitness-related content, can worsen body image and self-esteem.

But exercise posts featuring extremely lean or muscular models, implying that viewers should work out diligently to look more like them, can be particularly damaging, past studies have shown.

Interestingly, research has found that images of people actively engaging in exercise, instead of posing, can potentially be more motivating. This is particularly true of images depicting diverse body types, which one study found increased people’s self-esteem and boosted their intentions to exercise (though it’s unclear if it actually led to more exercise).

“We now need more research to examine aspects of fitspiration, such as focusing on body functionality and body diversity, that might promote positive body image,” Prichard said.

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