Health

How "Fitspiration" Social Posts Can Actually Discourage Exercise

Social media posts using #fitspiration or #fitspo can negatively impact mental health and discourage exercise.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiJan 12, 2023 8:00 PM
TikTok Workout
(Credit:PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock)

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Need motivation to make it to the gym?

Many people turn to fitness inspiration hashtags on social media with the hope they’ll feel encouraged to exercise. Called fitspo or fitspiration (a fusion of the words fitness and inspiration), these shortcuts bring social media users a steady stream of exercise images and information.

On TikTok, for example, #fitspo has more than two billion views and includes videos of people exercising or showing off their results by flexing for selfies in locker room mirrors.

Although fitspo is meant to motivate, studies have found that viewing fitspo content doesn’t lead to more or better workouts. Instead, researchers are learning that fitspo can make a person feel defeated, which can tank their desire to work out. 

#Unmotivated

Scientists have well-established the physical and mental benefits of a regular workout routine. Even so, many people still aren’t motivated to trot on the treadmill or join a group exercise class. 


Read More: You May be Experiencing Exercise Anxiety


People who view fitspo on social media say they are looking for motivation to get off the couch and into the weight room. In a 2019 study in BMC Public Health, almost all participants said they looked at fitspiration in order to get motivated to exercise or eat healthy.

The study analyzed 180 participants who answered open-ended questions regarding their fitspiration viewing. Several major themes emerged from their responses, including how most said they used fitspo to establish what they felt was the “healthy ideal.” About half of the participants said they used “fitspo” to identify people they thought represented the ideal body type. Others said these images represented how the images proved body goals could be achieved through hard work and determination.

But the study found that looking at fitspo wasn’t a healthy behavior. About 25 percent of the participants said they weren’t happy with their physique and felt a sense of failure for not resembling the healthy ideal they admired. The study authors noted that only a small number of participants said they understood the images were likely edited to make the poster seem thinner or more muscular than they were in real life.

#Disappointed

Many people who post under #fitspo and #fitspiration indeed depict a body ideal. Content analysis of fitspo posts has found that women typically represent the slender body ideal, and men represent hyper-muscular ideals.

Some viewers aren’t fazed by this content, particularly those who exercise for health, not appearance reasons. But researchers have found that people who are motivated to exercise to change their appearance are less likely to see gains in body satisfaction. And if people don’t see the expected results, they are less likely to be motivated to work out.

Say a TikTok user, for example, follows an account of a physical trainer who posts clips demonstrating exercises inspired by the 1990s Abs of Steel video series. At the gym, the user regularly replicates the workout. Over time, the user’s core becomes stronger, but they never develop a defined six-pack like the trainer. Despite their gains, the user feels disappointed and eventually loses motivation to continue what feels like a losing battle.

Many users, however, fail to grasp the connection between how they view fitspo content and then how they see their own bodies. In a 2019 article in New Media & Society, participants were young men (ages 17-27) who looked at fitspo on Instagram. The participants didn’t see fitspo as something that made them want to work out or feel more critical about their own bodies. At the same time, they also said the muscular fitspo body was their ideal, compared themselves to that ideal, and felt less satisfaction with themselves. 

#GettingMotivated

People who view fitspo on social media and still don’t feel like working out might find motivation by reconsidering the benefits of a workout session. Exercise motivations are typically categorized as appearance or health based.

Appearance-based motivations are rooted in wanting to change or maintain a particular area of the body. For example, a person who wants washboard abs is basing their workouts on an appearance-related goal. Health-based motivations, in contrast, are typically about wanting to strengthen the body and live better.

People who exercise for enjoyment, stress relief, wellness or for the thrill of competing against others were more likely to work out than those focused on appearance. Consciously rethinking why a workout is beneficial and going beyond appearance-related reasons might be helpful for people who are starting to feel unmotivated.

Unmotivated exercisers might also find relief by ignoring fitspo content. Fitspiration viewing has proven to have a negative effect on a person’s mood and tends to spark comparisons. Thus, unfollowing hashtags or fitness influencers can be a healthy and helpful behavior.

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