Instagram Fitness Fanatics May Be Less Healthy Than You Think

One in five women posting #fitspo pics could be at risk of an eating disorder.
January 27, 2017, 9:23pm

The portmanteau "fitspiration" refers to photos of toned bodies meant to inspire people to work out, eat well, and be healthy. Prime example: Images captioned "strong is the new skinny." But women who post these images are more likely to have disordered eating and compulsive exercise habits, with nearly one in five women at risk of a clinical eating disorder diagnosis, according to a study in the January issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.


Australian researchers recruited women who had publicly posted at least 10 #fitspiration pics to their Instagram account—yes, researchers tracked down participants via the app—and invited them to take a survey designed to assess measures of disordered eating and compulsive exercise, as well as drive for thinness and muscularity based on the Eating Disorder Inventory, or EDI. (Compulsive exercise was measured by feelings of shame and depression after missing a workout rather than how often a person worked out.)

As a control, they contacted women who'd posted 10 or more #travel photos, since those are also often aspirational. They ended up with completed surveys from a little over 100 women in each of the fitspo and travel groups. The women were between the ages of 18 and 48, with the average age of the fitness 'grammers at 26 compared to 30 for the travel group. They did not have significantly different body mass indexes (BMIs): 23.96 and 22.99 respectively.

They found that the fitspo women scored significantly higher than the travel group on the overall EDI, as well as on the subscales of drive for thinness and drive for muscularity and measures of compulsive exercise and bulimia. The difference between groups in terms of body dissatisfaction was not statistically significant. Based on the drive for thinness, they determined that 17.5 percent (or close to one in five) of the fitspo women were at risk for diagnosis of a clinical eating disorder versus 4.3 percent of women in the travel group.

The study was limited to women with public accounts, but the authors said it was a good start in investigating the characteristics of women who post fitspo. They wrote: "It seems likely, at least for some women, that even though they may present as fit and healthy, regularly posting fitspiration is a culturally sanctioned way of rationalizing dietary restriction, disordered eating, and over-exercising." But fitspo doesn't exist in a vacuum: The poster's friends and connections see it, too. They said more research is needed to understand how such images might affect third parties.

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