Our New Paper: Perceptions of #Fitspiration Activity on Instagram

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By Sabrina DiBisceglie, B.S. and Dr. Dani Arigo

Our new paper in Journal of Health Psychology investigates perceptions of the Instagram trend #fitspiration, with the goal of better understanding its health potential for health promotion. This study is the first in our series that focuses on how best to use fitspiration to promote physical activity. This series began in 2016 at The University of Scranton, where it was funded by the Presidential Summer Research Fellowship to then-undergraduate Sabrina DiBisceglie. (See here for our the first of our blog posts on the topic, as well; five total.) Study design and data collection involved several additional undergraduate research assistants working with Dr. Arigo’s Clinical Health Psychology Research Team (now the CHASE Lab at Rowan University).

Fitspiration is a popular trend on Instagram (and other platforms) and is intended to inspire users to engage in healthy behaviors. Yet existing research has raised concerns about the possible negative effects of fitspiration exposure on body image or self-esteem, and little is known about how Instagram users perceive or respond to fitspiration posts. This study was designed clarify the intentions and perceptions of both individuals who host fitspiration accounts (fitstagrammers) and young adults who regularly follow such accounts (followers). Importantly, the bulk of existing research on fitspiration has focused only on women; this study included both men and women, which allowed us to examine gender differences. The following infographic gives a summary; read on below for more detail.

What did we do?

Using the Instagram direct message function, we recruited Instagram users who had recently posted fitspiration content and had over 300 followers. We also recruited young adult fitspiration followers from our university. Both groups were asked to complete a short online survey. A total of 65 fitstagrammers and 270 followers completed the survey, with 20% of the overall group identifying as men.

What did we find?

The most common reasons for posting fitspiration among fitstagrammers were to inspire others and to keep themselves motivated and accountable. Followers reported that their most common reasons for following fitspiration were to learn exercises and tips that they could use for themselves, and to be inspired to exercise. Followers who said they had more frequent exposure to fitspiration content also reported exercising more often.

The largest subsets of fitstagrammers reported feeling negative at least sometimes (50%) when viewing fitspiration images, followed by feeling mostly positive (42%). The largest subsets of followers reported feeling negative at least sometimes (64%) and feeling mostly positive (11%) when viewing fitspiration posts. Followers were more likely than fitstagrammers to feel negative after viewing fitspiration posts, and women were more likely than men to feel negative after viewing posts.

When given an option to choose the most motivating post from six available images, fitstagrammers and men were most likely to select a post with the underlying message of “fitness is earned and not given.” However, followers and women were most likely to select a post that emphasized not quitting or the benefits of effort.

What does this mean?

Fitstagrammers’ intentions to motivate and inspire others are appealing to many followers, and fitspiration may offer opportunities for positive health communication and physical activity promotion. However, this study shows that fitspiration can have negative consequences (for both women and men), which may stem from social comparison processes. Users may compare their physical fitness or body shape to that of fitstagrammers, who typically are muscular and attractive, and feel discouraged or inadequate. This study also indicates that content preferences differ between users. Repeated exposure to nonpreferred content may increase the likelihood of experiencing negative consequences. 

What was it like to run this study?

“This study was a great learning experience for me as a student, but also as a fitspiration follower. Through this research process, I became more aware of my experience as a follower, and in turn have continued to question what types of posts and messaging motivate me (and ultimately, get me to exercise). Our findings show that what works for one user doesn’t necessarily work for others. Understanding these individual differences will be helpful for health professionals and other consumers like me as we try to determine how to tailor fitspiration content to meet different motivational needs and preferences.”

— Sabrina DiBisceglie

“Sabrina and I started working together when she was a second-year undergraduate. She approached me with the idea of studying fitspiration and has been the driving force behind our growing interest in this topic. This was an important first step for us, toward understanding who and under what circumstances fitspiration is helpful versus harmful. Social comparison theory can help us understand these nuances and we’ll continue to look for other perspectives that can contribute. And this was the first time our group has attempted to use Instagram to recruit participants – this is a unique and challenging process!”

— Dr. Dani Arigo

Next steps

We’re working on an experimental study to understand group and individual differences in response to distinct fitspiration messages. Understanding the effects of these message types will improve our ability to use and tailor fitspiration content to promote physical activity.