It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and you feel like grabbing a donut to tide you over until dinner. On your way out the door, you find your co-workers oohing and ahhing over the latest Instagram post of some ripped guy doing an exercise stunt that defies all reason and human physical capacity. Everyone in the office is stunned at his prowess.


Suddenly that donut thing seems like a bad plan. Maybe you’ll drop into the gym instead. Or maybe you’ll eat three donuts and wallow because you’ll never be that fit. Regardless, I think most of us will agree these images have an impact on our mental processes and self-image. That’s why we call it “fitspiration.”


Is Fitspiration Unhealthy?

A new study by researchers from the Georgia College and State University Department of Mass Communication have questioned whether that impact is always healthy. The research team investigated whether fitspiration and social media use may cause some people to spiral back into unhealthy patterns.


Specifically, the research team examined the relationship between social media use and two body-related concerns: disordered eating and compulsive exercise. While previous research has examined the correlation between social media use and eating disorders, this was the first study to shed light on fitspiration and compulsive exercise. The researchers included microblogs (Twitter, Instagram, etc.), traditional blogs, and mobile phone apps in their list of fitspiration platforms.


The research team defined fitspiration as follows:


"Content that gave dietary advice or allowed users to track their food intake, messages that contained workout routines or fitness plans, and content that motivated users to exercise and make healthy nutritious choices."


Subjects took the compulsive exercise test, or CET, to determine whether they tended toward excessive exercise. The CET assesses whether or not an individual displays some of the characteristics of excessive exercise, such as lack of exercise enjoyment, rule-driven behavior, and exercise for weight control.


A Positive Correlation

Results showed a significant correlation between social media use and both body-driven behaviors. Microblog and mobile app use were the strongest predictors for disordered eating. Mobilie application use was the strongest predictor for compulsive exercise behaviors. The research team proposed that the interactive quality of mobile apps makes them more likely to correlate with compulsive exercise, for the following reasons:


“Some aspects of the compulsive dimension of exercising are the maintenance of a rigid exercise schedule, priority of exercising over other activities, and feeling distressed if unable to exercise (Dalle Grave et al., 2008). Although microblogs and traditional blogs may have workout tips or motivational quotes and photos, they are not as interactive as mobile phone apps and do not have a record-keeping function - thus, they may be less influential in this manner.”


Like any study, the research raises more questions. For example, most of the subjects in the study (76 percent) were Caucasian females. The researchers acknowledged this limitation and suggested that future studies include an equal representation of male and female subjects.


It's Up to Us

While there are limitations to the research, the new study sheds light on the darker side of fitspiration. If a person’s exercise motivation stems from a unhealthy sense of guilt, lack of confidence, and comparison, it makes sense that being “fitspired” will just aggravate the problem. It’s up to social media users – as well as the online platforms that continue to perpetuate unattainable models of fitness – to stop the cycle.


Headline photo courtesy of J Perez Imagery.