By Kristen Pasko, Kerri Mazur, and Sabrina DiBisceglie
In our previous posts, we’ve discussed the potential for viewing #fitspiration posts to have either positive nor negative effects. As we have mentioned, some individuals are motivated by these images. For example, #fitspiration can inspire individuals who are beginning a journey of lifestyle change, and #fitspiration that aligns with the person’s health goals can help elicit positive outcomes (such as exercising and eating healthy, which prevents chronic disease and improves mood). People who view #fitspiration posts also might directly receive social support through group exercise, or indirectly because they see others engaged in exercise. In this way, #fitspiration posts can send the message that you’re not alone on your health journey.
Using the social environment, either online or in person, is desirable in public health interventions. In group settings, people can give and receive support and make upward comparisons with the goal of self-improvement (which is one use of #fistpiration posts). A recent meta- analysis of studies looking at the effects of social media on health behavior change showed that including social media in interventions leads to decreased fat consumption.
Social media also acts as an educational tool. Posts can link to demonstration videos of workouts, healthy recipes, and overall health tips, this information can be readily available to a user in one domain. This is especially useful at the start of a lifestyle change in providing inspiration as well as a roadmap. Following steps in the form of a video or written in the caption of a photo, as well as using information provided by someone who is an expert or who has already gone through their own health journey, may provide a user with comfort and decrease the stress of not knowing what to do or where to start.
#Fitspiration and similar uses of social media also can be beneficial for the person who does the posting. Posting can help you stay accountable for your progress and motivate ongoing healthy habits. In a 2015 study, survey respondents reported that the number of “likes” they receive on their exercise posts indicates other people’s acknowledgement of their progress. The more acknowledgement they receive for their posts, the more motivated they are to continue.
What about those who are negatively impacted? Individuals who have been diagnosed with an eating are more likely to view images of #fitspiration more often than those who do not have a diagnosis. Therefore, it is possible that these images may perpetuate body dissatisfaction that and disordered eating behaviors. For example, those with orthorexia experience a fixation on “healthy” eating behaviors and fitness-related activities, and often post about their habits on social media. When eating behaviors become restricted, exercise becomes punishment, and #fitspiration becomes an obsession, what once came from positive motivation can turn into a negative downward spiral. Another study found that those with mood disorders were more likely to view content related to fitness and dieting. So is it the content that increases the likelihood of these behaviors, or that people who already have mental health concerns are more likely to view this content?
A recent study suggested that Facebook use of just 20 minutes was associated with “maintenance of weight/shape concerns and state anxiety.” In addition, female users of social media are more likely to participate in appearance-focused behavior like untagging themselves in pictures where they perceive themselves as less attractive than their friends, and are more likely to perceive responses from Facebook content as significant.
It appears that there are specific groups at risk for negative responses to #fitspiration and other trends on social media: those who show symptoms of an eating disorder, have a history of a mood disorder, or those with low self-esteem. It is clear, though, that with the various positive and negative potential outcomes, more research needs to be done on #fitspiration. In a future post we will discuss what has been done to increase safety on social media platforms and how that can be further improved!