Online fitness trend #fitspiration makes women feel worse, research finds

Online #fitspiration images often depicting young, slim and athletic women are doing more harm than good, according to Flinders University researchers.

Despite the positive and inspirational intention of the #fitspiration movement, researchers found the images and messaging – often found on image based platforms such as Instagram – are making women feel worse about their bodies instead of inspiring them to exercise.

The prominent #fitspiration hashtag returns more than 65 million posts on Instagram and typically shows people in workout clothing, either posed or actively engaged in exercise. #fitspiration images can also feature motivational text or healthy meals.

Caring Futures Institute researcher and co-deputy director of the SHAPE Research Centre (Sport, Health, Activity, Performance and Exercise) at Flinders Dr Ivanka Prichard led the study in collaboration with researchers in Queensland and Victoria.

The study of more than 100 women aged between 17 and 25 found that viewing #fitspiration images increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction among women and that exposure to these images gave them no greater motivation to exercise.

“When considering actual exercise behaviour, there appears to be no beneficial effect,” says Dr Prichard.

“Despite their positive intentions and popularity, #fitspiration images are yet another way to make women feel worse about themselves and their bodies.

“Close to 90% of young Australians use some form of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat. Young women’s rapidly growing use of image-based platforms such as Instagram is of concern, given what we know about the impact of idealised imagery on body image.

“One of the most consistent and influential forces on young women’s body image is the media’s depiction of idealised and often unobtainable body types such as a thin and fit ideal.”

Caring Futures Institute researcher Dr Ivanka Prichard.

Results of the study demonstrated that when exposed to #fitspiration images, the women experienced significantly higher negative mood and body dissatisfaction compared to when they were exposed to travel inspiration images.

Some of the women were then asked to exercise after viewing the images.

The women who viewed the #fitspiration images felt like they had worked harder on the treadmill but did not actually travel further on the treadmill compared to women who viewed travel images.

The study also found that engaging in exercise after viewing #fitspiration images did improve mood and body image. However, some women were exposed to #fitspiration and did not exercise, and their mood and body image perception were back to normal after a period of quiet rest.

“These findings provide further evidence highlighting fitspiration and aspiring to a thin and fit ideal as a potentially harmful online trend,” Dr Prichard says.

“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.”

The research paper is titled The effect of Instagram #fitspiration images on young women’s mood, body image, and exercise behaviour, by Dr Prichard, Eliza Kavanagh, Kate Mulgrew, Megan Lim and Marika Tiggemann, and has been published in the journal, Body Image (Elsevier) DOI

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