Does viewing photoshopped images of fit people really motivate you? Studies show that #fitspiration might have the opposite of its well-intended effect.
If you search for #fitspiration on Instagram, you'll find literally millions of images. I just searched and got 18,520,901 hits, which is 500 more than I saw two hours ago. All of them are photos of muscular, slim, and flexible folks (mixed in with a few jokesters) and even fewer professional athletes. Many of the photos come with motivational quotes like “Win the morning, and you win the day” or “Your goals don’t care about your excuses” or a long lists of advice about how “You, too, can turn your life around” ... often with a hefty dose of product endorsement thrown in.
Does scrolling through endless highly curated photos of people caught at their absolute best do anything for our own motivation, happiness, fitness or mental health?
Motivation is supposed to be the point of these images—the good old “if I can do it then so can you” idea. But do they work? Does scrolling through endless highly curated photos of people caught at their absolute best do anything for our motivation, happiness, fitness or mental health?
That is what the folks at the Shape Research Centre at Flinders University aimed to find out. They asked: Do these images succeed in inspiring women to exercise and live that #fitlife, or do they make them feel worse about themselves and their bodies?
You've probably already guessed from my tone that despite the popularity of #fitspiration images and the (assumed) positive intentions of the people posting them, the researchers at Flinders University's College of Nursing and Health Sciences found their effect to be the opposite of "inspirational."
But it’s not quite as simple as that. Let's have a closer look.
The Fitspiration Study
In the paper titled The effect of Instagram #fitspiration images on young women’s mood, body image, and exercise behaviour, researchers experimentally examined the effects of viewing fitspiration images on Instagram using these criteria: body dissatisfaction, mood, and exercise behavior.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Ivanka Prichard, who is Co-Deputy Director of the SHAPE Research Centre, told Eureka Alert:
Close to 90 percent of young Australians use some form of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Snap-Chat. Young women's rapidly growing use of image-based platforms such as Instagram is of concern, given what we know about the impact of idealized imagery on body image.
To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, the study looked at 108 women, ranging in age from 17 to 25. The women were randomly assigned to view images from either fitspiration or travel inspiration and then asked to perform some exercise or have some “quiet rest.” The researchers assessed the participant’s state of body dissatisfaction at baseline, following image exposure, and following a ten-minute walk or quiet rest period.
The results demonstrated that exposure to #fitspiration images led to significantly higher negative mood and body dissatisfaction when compared to the women being exposed to travel inspiration images. Which isn’t all that mind-blowing. We have known that fashion magazines and negative body image have been linked since about 1952.
But this study went deeper and got a lot more interesting.
The participants who were asked to exercise after viewing the #fitspiration images reported that they felt like they worked harder (or had a higher level of perceived exertion) when they were put on the researcher’s treadmill. Even though they didn't cover more kilometers on the treadmill than women who had viewed travel images, they still felt as if they'd put in more effort.
So, the simple act of viewing images meant to inspire had the opposite effect. Instead of jumping on the treadmill and ripping it up in a fit of motivated glory, the participants covered less ground and felt worse while doing it.
Changes in mood
The researchers also saw that scrolling through fitspiration images led to significantly higher negative mood and body dissatisfaction relative to scrolling through travel images. The participants reported feeling more drained and demoralized.
But if the participants exercised after viewing the not-so-motivational-after-all #fitspiration images, they felt better and reported a reduction in the negative effects of the image exposure. Not too surprisingly, they all experienced improvements in mood and body image after they exercised.
I call this "not too surprising” because of the well-established and well-studied mood-boosting effects of exercise. The American Psychological Association even has a name for it: The Exercise Effect.
RELATED: How Exercise Can Prevent Depression
James Blumenthal, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Duke University, says "There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,"
Why waste this mood-boosting Exercise Effect on trying to undo the damage done by scrolling through Instagram? Why not just cut to the chase?
But I suggest that if the mood-boosting benefit of exercise happens whether you look at fitspiration images or not, why waste this Exercise Effect on trying to undo the damage done by scrolling through Instagram? Why not just cut to the chase?
Changes in exercise behavior
The other interesting element of this study revolves around the crux of the matters—did the women who viewed the images change their behavior? Did they become more motivated to exercise?
Sadly, the study authors stated that exposure to fitspiration images did not lead to greater exercise behavior, either. So again, all those buff and well-meaning social media influencers trying to motivate us to to get out there and get fit are failing.
Interestingly, a 2017 paper called The Impact of Different Forms of #fitspiration Imagery on Body Image, Mood, and Self-Objectification among Young Women found that posts featuring slim and muscular models—with captions suggesting the scrollers should work harder to look like them—can be particularly damaging. But the images of people actively engaging in exercise (not just flexing and posing) can be somewhat motivating.
They also saw that images which depicted more diverse body types increased the viewer's self-esteem and may have had some influence on their motivation to exercise. But the researchers suggested that further study was required to be certain of that finding.
No beneficial effect
In a news release from March 2020 that goes along with this study, Dr. Ivanka Prichard said, "When considering actual exercise behavior, there appears to be no beneficial effect,” and “Despite their positive intentions and popularity, #fitspiration images are yet another way to make women feel worse about themselves and their bodies."
Dr. Prichard went on to say, "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." That's something I, for one, can’t wait to see.
Let's focus on how amazing all of us are, in all our glorious shapes and sizes. Fitness is defined by having the ability to do the things we enjoy, not by how we look on the internet.
Even an old curmudgeon like me has a hard time not clicking heart or like (or whatever the heck they're calling it these days) on videos of humans truly performing their best. I find them far more interesting than posed images that have been filtered and photoshopped into looking extraordinary. And I think it's even better if that performance is against all odds.
Show me a 103-year-old running track, a 10-year-old girl doing Olympic lifts, or a 10,000 metre runner who wipes-out but still wins the race and I will be fired up for the rest of the day. But show me a guy with rippling abs flexing in front of a sports car and, at best, I'll just keep scrolling. At worst, though, I'll sit and emotionally beat myself up for having that second beer with dinner on Friday.
So let's focus on how amazing all of us are, in all our glorious shapes and sizes. Fitness is defined by having the ability to do the things we enjoy, not by how we look on the internet.
Stop scrolling and let the fitspiration come from your internal desire to be more awesome tomorrow than you were yesterday.