Individual Differences in the Effects of #Fitspiration

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fit2By Kristen Pasko, Sabrina DiBisceglie, and Kerri Mazur

In a previous post, we mentioned that motivation for viewing #fitspiration posts affects how people respond to them. For example, if you have the goal of improving yourself, you are might feel motivated because you see these images and messages as achievable. But if you see yourself as already really similar to these images (or messages, such as the one displayed here), you might not dramatically change your fitness behaviors. On the other hand, if you don’t have a well-formed improvement goal and you believe that #fitspiration images are much fitter than you, you might feel dissatisfied with your body and be motivated to exercise or change your fitness routine. In this case, you might work harder to close this gap between the images and your body, even if you think that the image will be difficult for you to achieve.

We questioned whether these differences in motivation for viewing #fitspiration posts affect body satisfaction, depending on the length of exposure to the posts. Recent research among young women shows a trend that the effect of exposure changes over time. Seeing #fitspiration posts initially makes women more likely to evaluate themselves and feel worse about their bodies. For example, women report increased body dissatisfaction and decreased self-esteem after viewing #fitspiration posts. This could be a result of comparing themselves to the women in the pictures. However, if they continue to be exposed to posts over time, they are likely to decide to improve their bodies. On average, they are inspired to improve their fitness and diet regimens. In other words, the more you compare upward (to someone you thought someone else was more physically in shape than you), the more you might change your fitness habits. (It’s important to note that these are average changes, and that not everyone in the sample responded the same way over time.)

fit3So, does #fitspiration achieve its purpose – motivating women to become more fit? Researchers suggest limiting exposure to #fitspiration posts due to potential negative effects on self-esteem, which seems to happen at first. But some research shows that decreased self-esteem may be only temporary. If this is the case, is this risk worth changes in health behavior? It is clear that further research needs to be done on the effects of brief #fitspiration exposure compared to long-term or repeated exposure.

Besides motivation for viewing #fistpiration posts and length of exposure to posts, body composition seems to be related to the effect of #fitspiration. According to the NIH, women who are overweight (BMI that exceeds 25.0) tend to be more discouraged when viewing #fitspiration images than women in the normal weight category. Overweight women may have difficulty relating to the images, and see the fitness goals as unattainable. However, women of average weight looking to “tone up” or “drop a few pounds” find these images motivating because they are better able to envision themselves reaching these goals in the future.

A final individual difference in the effects of #fistpiration is self-esteem. Someone with lower self-esteem my find these images more discouraging than someone with higher self-esteem. The person with higher self-esteem may also pursue weight loss as a way to improve their health, and make positive changes for his or her life. However, an individual experiencing lower self-esteem may approach weight loss with a negative perception, which only fuels their already dampened self-esteem. In a follow-up post we will explore the pros and cons of #fitspiration!

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