Close-Up on Our Latest Paper: Experimental Effects of #Fitspiration Messaging on Body Satisfaction, Exercise Motivation, and Exercise Behavior among College Women and Men

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Our newest publication is now available in Translational Behavioral Medicine! You may remember from one of our previous posts that we’re interested in the #fitspiration trend on social media. This hashtag indicates content that is intended to inspire fitness behaviors and a healthy lifestyle. Posts typically use images of very fit people exercising, with an associated message. The traditional messages included with fitspiration posts focus on exercise for physical gain and emphasize toughness. For example, “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” But recently, some users have tried to shift the focus of fitspiration messages to self-compassion, communicating that exercise is self-care and self-love. For example, “You gotta do this for you. Love you. Honor you.” Recent research has investigated the potential effects of traditional versus self-compassion messages, though these studies have used small samples of only women and have included only self-reported outcomes such as body satisfaction.

Given that fitspiration is meant to inspire exercise behavior, and as we know very little about gender differences in response to traditional versus self-compassionate fitspiration messages, we set out to conduct a large study that enrolled both women and men and included an objective measure of exercise. Our new paper describes a randomized, experimental study to test the short-term effects of different types of fitspiration posts among college women and men. We used self-reported body satisfaction and exercise motivation, as well as objectively recorded visits to campus fitness centers over the following week, as our outcomes. Our hypotheses were pre-registered with the Open Science Framework.

What did we do?

This study had several stages, starting before we moved our team to Rowan University. The first stage was to develop and pre-test our fitspiration messages and images; the second was to run a small version of the study to confirm that we were on the right track (sample size = 142). When we came to Rowan, we set up the procedures again and coordinated with Campus Recreation to access students’ ID card swipes into university fitness centers (as our measure of exercise behavior). We wanted a large sample to ensure that we would be able to test our hypotheses effectively, and we ended up with a sample size of 655. Students who participated in the study completed a brief set of questionnaires and then opened a link to one of three feeds on Instagram: one with 10 fitspiration images that had traditional messages attached, one with 10 images that had self-compassion messages attached, and one with just 10 images (no message, as a control). Women were assigned to see images of women and men were assigned to see images of men, for a total of six experimental conditions. All images were the same in each gender-specific arm.

After they viewed the Instagram feeds, students completed an attention check and then answered questions about their current body satisfaction and motivation to exercise. We accessed these students’ swipes into university fitness centers over the following 7 days and counted the number of times they went to these locations. In general, we expected women to respond more positively to self-compassion messages than men, and men to respond more positively to traditional messages than women. These hypotheses were based on existing data that show gender differences in preference and response to the tone of health messages.

What did we find?

Although our pre-specified hypotheses were not supported, we did find differences in all three of our outcomes, by message type and gender. Men’s body satisfaction and exercise behavior were greatest for those who saw fitspiration images without any message, though their exercise motivation was highest for those who saw images paired with traditional messages. In contrast, women’s body satisfaction was highest for those who saw either type of message (relative to just an image), and their exercise behavior was most frequent for those who saw self-compassion messages. There were no differences in women’s exercise motivation by message type.

What does this tell us?

We concluded that self-compassion messaging may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among women, whereas images without associated text may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among men. This information could be extremely helpful for informing the use of #fitspiration (and other social media trends) to support healthy self-image and behaviors among college students, by tailoring messages that are most likely to have positive effects for women versus men.

What was it like to work on this study?

This is the second in a series of studies that was inspired by an assignment in my undergraduate research methods course. I couldn’t have imagined then that a series of studies would be conducted as a result one idea. We’ve also seen the #fitspiration trend grow into a social media industry since that time. I’m grateful to the CHASE team for continuing this project and conducting it on a larger scale, and I’m optimistic about this line of research and look forward to future studies to examine how “viral” trends influence of health behaviors across social media platforms.

– Sabrina DiBisceglie, former CHASE Lab Member (University of Scranton)

I really enjoyed being a part of this process, which began as a pilot at the University of Scranton and evolved into an experimental study at Rowan University. At the beginning of the experimental study, I was starting as a research coordinator in the CHASE Lab at Rowan, so I was able to help oversee data collection and coding, as well as contribute to conference presentations and manuscript preparation, which was a great learning experience. I am really happy that I was able to collaborate with Sabrina and Dr. Arigo on this project and see the experimental portion all the way through. Given how popular fitspiration is on different social media platforms, this work can help to encourage users to be more aware of the information that they are taking away from fitspiration posts.

-Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Member

This study was a first for our team in several ways. Although we’ve used experimental designs before, this is our first published experiment as a team, and it was our first collaboration with Rowan’s Campus Recreation department – the staff there were so supportive and helpful, which smoothed the way. And although we’ve preregistered our scoping review methods with the Open Science Framework before, this was our first time pre-registering hypotheses. Plus, it took more than a year and a half to collect the data, and COVID interrupted us right at the end. I’m so impressed with our team for bringing together so many different elements to produce this paper and we’re proud of the end result! We’re grateful to Sabrina for getting this started and for staying so closely involved throughout the process.

-Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

Next Steps

We’re continuing to work on understanding the #fitspiration trend by examining individual differences associated with positive (vs. negative) outcomes. This includes additional, exploratory analyses on our experimental dataset (described in this post) and using data from our previous cross-sectional surveys. For example, we want to understand how social comparison processes play a role in response to viewing fitspiration posts. We hope to share more information about this work very soon!