Toward Evidence-Based Fitspiration
Studies have shown that exposure to idealized body images, such as those often portrayed by fitness influencers on social media, can lead to negative body image and disordered eating behaviors—risk factors for depression.
A recent research piece in BMC Public Health (Curtis et al. 2023) analyzed the credibility and content of fitness-related Instagram accounts that use the hashtag “fitspiration.” Its findings confirm what my own scrolling has told me, and likely many of you, for several years: While perhaps well-meaning, the messaging and imagery posted by these influencers may be doing more harm than good.
The impact of social media on mental health, including depression, has become a growing concern in recent years. Although the causes of depression are complex and multifaceted, research suggests that social media may play a role in its development and amplification. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that exposure to idealized body images, such as those often portrayed by fitness influencers on social media, can lead to negative body image and disordered eating behaviors—risk factors for depression. In addition, social media use has been associated with social comparison, which can spiral into feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem—more sour ingredients contributing to depression.
The authors showed that of the 100 Instagram accounts analyzed with their audit tool, only 41% were considered credible. Accounts were deemed noncredible and were excluded if they contained fewer than four fitness-related posts or portrayed nudity or inappropriate clothing, sexualization or objectification, extreme body types, “thinspiration,” or negative messages.
Additionally, the content of the non-credible accounts was found to have a focus on appearance and weight loss with limited attention given to health and fitness as a lifestyle. The study highlights the need for consumers seeking fitness advice to learn how to critically evaluate the credibility and content of fitness-related social media accounts, and for social media platforms to ensure that fitness-related content is accurate and evidence-based.
The authors highlighted several specific dangers associated with fitness-related Instagram accounts that promote potentially harmful content. These include:
- Misinformation: Low-quality content can contain inaccurate or misleading information about health, fitness and nutrition and lead to harmful practices.
- Unrealistic expectations: Fitspiration often portrays idealized body types, which can lead to negative body image and disordered eating in women, men, kids and teens alike.
- Lack of diversity: Many influencer accounts promote a narrow definition of beauty and fitness, marginalizing individuals who don’t fit the mold.
- Unsafe practices: Some fitness-related content promotes unsafe practices, such as extreme dieting, overtraining, misguided use of supplements and use of performance-enhancing drugs, which can lead to health risks and complications.
- Disregard for mental health: Many fitspiration accounts focus solely on physical appearance and neglect mental health, leading to harm for individuals who have, or may be susceptible to, mental health conditions.
Counteracting Negative Fitspiration
As a certified, credentialed fitness pro, you can take several steps to protect your reputation and prevent the negative influence of unqualified influencers from tarnishing the image of your profession. Here are a few tips:
- Promote evidence-based practices. Emphasize the importance of science-based approaches to fitness and nutrition in your content. Share information created by IDEA’s editors that is pre-vetted for you. Our award-winning content trove includes more than 15,000 articles across the spectrum of health, fitness, nutrition and behavior modification. Also, point to your qualifications and training, and encourage followers to seek advice from qualified colleagues.
- Call out bad practices. Speak out against unsafe or misleading practices promoted by unqualified influencers, and provide accurate information to counter misinformation. Use your platform to promote health and safety to educate your followers.
- Engage! Foster a dialogue with your followers and answer their questions about health and fitness. Encourage them to seek out qualified pros for individualized advice rather than relying solely on social media influencers. Demonstrate your knowledge and care with thoughtful, empathetic conversation that promotes trust.
- Collaborate with qualified professionals. Network and partner with other high-level pros to provide holistic and science-based approaches.
- Stay current with your continuing education: Continuously update your knowledge and skills by taking professional development courses and attending live events like IDEA World. This will keep you fresh and in-the-know with the latest research, and will better position you as a credible go-to resource.
Become a Change Maker
Your unique superpower as an IDEA member is understanding how to leverage social media as a force of positivity for inclusiveness, body acceptance, and improved physical and mental health. You understand better than most fit pros how to provide social support, foster community, and celebrate the joy and freedom of movement. You lead by example and with your heart and your intellect.
Perhaps if we embrace these well-meaning, but bungling, influencers—and gently show them through our experience that there is so much more to fitspiration than likes, loves and shares—we can tip the balance to overall credibility on social channels and collaborate to change more lives than ever.
Upskill Your Fitspiration at IDEA World
The timing to build your expertise in this area is ideal, as we have a number of sessions planned on mental health and size-inclusion at IDEA World, July 12-16, in Los Angeles. Check out this sampling of courses and take advantage of our Early-Bird Discount, the best deal on the event, expiring soon. Secure your spot now.
299: The Science of Bias and How to Build Stronger Client Connections, Kellie Walters, PhD
421: Words Matter: Eating Disorder Truths & Triggers, Christine Conti, MEd
457: What Fitness Professionals Need to Know About Mental Health, Lynne Brick, MA, & Cassandra Vieten, PhD
533: Creating Size-Inclusive Fitness Experiences, Ragen Chastain
660: Decoding and Dismissing Diet Culture, Erin Nitschke, EdD
756: Breaking Free From the Wellness Trap, Christy Harrison, MPH, RD
Post-Event Intensive: A Fitness Professional’s Guide to Include Mental Well-Being into Fitness Training, Lynne Brick, MA, & Cassandra Vieten, PhD
Have a wonderful week, and keep inspiring the world to fitness!
Curtis, R.G., et al. 2023. Hashtag fitspiration: Credibility screening and content analysis of Instagram fitness accounts. BMC Public Health 23, 421.
Sandy Todd Webster
For 22 years, Sandy Todd Webster was the chief architect of IDEA's content program - including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS - the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. She created, launched and nurtured these brands and many others during her productive and purposeful IDEA tenure. Sandy is a Rouxbe-certified professional plant-based cook and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach who is pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable Food Systems through The Culinary Institute of America (expected August 2024). She plans to combine these passions with her content expertise to continue inspiring others to make the world a more just, healthy and regenerative place.
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