WOMEN
08/24/2015 12:28 pm ET

The Major Downside Of All Those #Fitspiration Photos

Gym selfies aren't as harmless as you might think.

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background
A quick search of #fitspiration or #fitspo on Instagram will yield nearly 30 million (and counting) photos of gym selfies, avocado toast, running shoes, motivational quotes and the like. Fitspiration -- or images that encourage weight loss, dieting and exercise -- may seem to promote a "healthy" lifestyle, but it's become a concern of mental health professionals who study body image. The problem is that many women might compare themselves to these thin, toned bodies that are sometimes presented as attainable on these social media sites. 

Previous studies have linked time spent on the Internet to body dissatisfaction -- specifically, time spent looking at Facebook photosInstagram is particularly interesting, since it's entirely photo-based and provides easily searchable hashtags for fitness-minded people looking to get inspired. A recent study from Flinders University in Australia looked into how fitspiration images on Instagram affect women.  

The Setup
For the study, researchers gathered 130 women between the ages of 17 to 30 and asked them to report whether or not they had an Instagram account and how much time they spent on it per day. Then, they surveyed the women to determine their initial mood and body dissatisfaction.

After that, the women were divided into two groups: one that would be shown fitspiration Instagram images and one was shown travel images on Instagram during the single session in the lab. Those in the fitspiration group saw 16 pictures of women posing in fitness clothing or engaging in exercise and two travel-related images. The travel group saw 18 pictures of destinations, 11 with people. Vague inspirational quotes -- like, "If your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough" -- were printed over both sets of photos. 

Once they looked at the images, all of the women once again completed surveys to measure mood and body dissatisfaction. This time, they were also asked about their self-esteem and how they compared themselves to the people in the Instagram images. Then they were asked if the images they saw inspired them to improve their fitness, eat healthy and/or go traveling.

The Findings
The two groups had very different results: Those who saw fitspiration images had greater body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem after the experiment than those who looked at travel images. According to the researchers, this effect was due to the women comparing themselves to the people in the images. This pattern of social comparison leading to body dissatisfaction is one that's been found in previous, non-Instagram-specific research

The confidence-busting effect in this study was so great that the researchers suggest that fitspiration might be particularly harmful for body image, since it involves comparing oneself to "everyday women or peers, rather than models." Again, this concept is one that's been supported by previous, non-Instagram-specific research.

The researchers noted, however, that fitspiration images did fulfill one intended purpose: They inspired the women who viewed them to want to improve their fitness and diet regimens -- just at the cost of their self-esteem and body satisfaction.

The Takeaway
Whatever the intention, following fitspiration accounts on Instagram may not be such a healthy habit, according to the researchers. They cite previous research about how appearance-based incentives to motivate diet or exercise can lead women to disordered eating -- aka, an unhealthy lifestyle. 

"Women should be warned against using the women portrayed in fitspiration images as aspirational targets for social comparison," the researchers wrote. 

It might be hard to completely remove yourself from the fitspiration community -- you don't have to search #fitspo to see a college acquaintance's gym selfie on your feed -- but the researchers suggest that you limit your exposure as best you can. 

At the end of the day, comparing yourself to those overly "perfect," Instagram-filtered images might stop you from realizing that you can be your own inspiration.  

Need help? Call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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