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Social Media Messages to Inspire Exercise May Backfire

A new Australian study suggests an Instagram movement to promote better health is flawed. Researchers discovered the images associated with an online program appear to make many women feel worse about themselves and their bodies rather than inspiring them to exercise.

Investigators at Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences studied more than 100 women aged 17-25 years. They found that viewing Instagram images increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction among women. Moreover, exposure to the social media images did not lead to greater exercise behavior.

The use of online sites and social media to promote health is recognized as an emerging technique to deliver motivational messages to a large population.

A current online method is “fitspiration.” Fitspiration consists of images that are designed to motivate people to exercise and pursue a healthier lifestyle. As a whole, fitspiration promotes health and well-being through the promotion of healthy eating, exercise and self-care, and the overall philosophy is one which emphasizes strength and empowerment.

However, the new study suggests results may be contrary to the intent. “When considering actual exercise behavior, there appears to be no beneficial effect,” said Dr. Ivanka Prichard, co-deputy director of the SHAPE Research Centre (Sport, Health, Activity, Performance and Exercise) at Flinders University.

“Despite their positive intentions and popularity, the Instagram images are yet another way to make women feel worse about themselves and their bodies,” she said.

“Close to 90 percent of young Australians use some form of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Snap-Chat. Young women’s rapidly growing use of image-based platforms such as Instagram is of concern, given what we know about the impact of idealized imagery on body image.

“One of the most consistent and influential forces on young women’s body image is the media’s depiction of idealized and often unobtainable body types such as a thin and fit ideal.”

The paper appears in the journal Body Image. Study authors include Ivanka Prichard, Eliza Kavanagh, Kate Mulgrew, Megan Lim and Marika Tiggemann.

Researchers discovered that exposure to #fitspiration images led to significantly higher negative mood and body dissatisfaction when compared to the same women being exposed to travel inspiration images.

Some women were then asked to exercise. Of these, women who had viewed #fitspiration images felt like they “worked harder” but did not actually travel any further on a treadmill than women who had viewed travel images.

The study also investigated if engaging in exercise after viewing #fitspiration images could reduce the negative effects from image exposure – and found improvements in mood and body image following exercise.

For women who were exposed to #fitspiration and did not exercise, their levels of mood and body image perception returned to normal following a period of quiet rest.

“These findings provide further evidence highlighting fitspiration and aspiring to a thin and fit ideal as a potentially harmful online trend.

“We now need more research to examine aspects of fitspiration, such as focusing on body functionality and body diversity, that might promote positive body image,” Prichard said.

Source: Flinders University/EurekAlert

Social Media Messages to Inspire Exercise May Backfire

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Social Media Messages to Inspire Exercise May Backfire. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Mar 2020 (Originally: 5 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Mar 2020
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