Looking for fitspiration on social media?

Now, in 2024, you may have considered starting a new exercise routine, eating better, or otherwise improving your health. That’s great! Or, as my grandfather would say, “There’s nothing wrong with that” – his highest praise.

In fact, few medical treatments can match the tremendous health benefits of regular exercise. But how do you decide what type of exercise is best for you? Well, you could seek advice from your doctor or a personal trainer. You could read books about fitness or take trial exercise classes. But it turns out that many people simply scroll through countless engaging “fitspirational” posts on social media. If you do that regularly – more often than, say, taking a brisk walk – you may want to rethink that strategy, according to a new study.

What exactly is fitspiration?

Fitspiration describes social media posts designed to inspire physical fitness and promote health. You can find fitspirational posts on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and other popular social media sites. They typically feature glossy photos and videos with workout and nutrition recommendations, accompanied by encouraging messages and quotes.

On Instagram alone, a search for #fitspiration (or related hashtags like #fitspo) currently lists nearly 100 million posts. Most of these feature images of attractive, slim, and fit women working out and talking about fitness and health optimization.

Looking for fitspiration on social media?

What's the problem with fitspiration?

The potential benefits of a pro-fitness message reaching millions of people are obvious. But the message needs to be credible and valid. And, importantly, the posts shouldn’t contain inaccurate, unhelpful, or even harmful information. That’s where the problems start.

According to some research, social media posts about fitness can have clear positive effects, especially when they focus on realistic exercise goals rather than appearance. However, fitspirational posts can also have downsides for viewers, including

increased body dissatisfaction

negative mood

decreased perception of attractiveness

assumption of thinness as the ideal

limited choice of different body shapes and types, suggesting that beauty is defined by being ultra-fit and thin

focus on appearance rather than function and performance.

A study on #fitspiration: Do these social media posts actually inspire fitness?

A recent study evaluated the quality of content with fitspiration hashtags posted by Instagram influencers. The results were disappointing but not surprising.

The authors identified 100 Instagram accounts of the most popular fitspiration influencers. The last 15 posts from each of these accounts were analyzed. Posts were not considered credible if they

showed nudity or revealing clothing, such as wearing a bikini to the gym

sexualized the person exercising, such as focusing on a woman’s breasts

contained images of extreme body types, such as severely underweight or extremely muscular people

conveyed messages promoting thinness or other negative messages rather than emphasizing health

contained fitness information in three or fewer out of 15 posts.

Looking for fitspiration on social media?

The researchers found that:

26% showed sexualized images

22% posted nudity or images of people exercising in revealing clothing unsuitable for exercise

15% showed people with extreme body types

41% posted fitness-related content in three or fewer posts.

A quarter of these accounts failed the credibility test on more than one of these criteria. Even among accounts deemed credible, only half were posted by people who had fitness or health credentials, such as certification as a physical therapist or personal trainer.

Although this study did not examine whether the posts had any actual impact on fitness outcomes, the results raise questions about the quality of Fitspiration content.

What does this mean for you?

When looking for fitness-related health content, look for the best information you can get. Be skeptical of sources without credentials in the fitness field. Be especially wary of posts that sell a product or service.

The authors of this study established certain criteria for fitness-related content that they have reviewed. You can apply these to posts you see onlineen.

The Bottom Line

It should come as no surprise that social media isn’t always the best place to start when it comes to health information.

While taking steps to improve your health is commendable—there’s really nothing wrong with that!—motivating yourself to be more physically active is just a start. Information you rely on to improve your physical fitness shouldn’t just look appealing. It should be thoroughly vetted for safety and backed by solid evidence that it can actually improve your health.