Jess Baller from JKM Fitness shares a fitspiration photo on Instagram Image: @jkm_fitness
Jess Baller from JKM Fitness shares a fitspiration photo on Instagram Image: @jkm_fitness

#Fitspiration or #fitsploitation? How health hashtags can harm

It’s the social media trend inspiring active lifestyles, but is online fitness culture as healthy as we think?

June 10, 2015

Type ‘fitspiration’ into any social media website and within seconds millions of slim and athletic bodies, motivating catch-phrases, and stylishly healthy meals fill the screen.

It’s enough to make you push aside that block of chocolate and reach for an apple instead.

Instagram alone has more than 3.3 million posts under the fitspiration hashtag, which aims to empower its followers to lead healthier lives one selfie at a time.

But is this new online fitness movement taking more from our self-esteem than it is from our waistlines?

Dr Ivanka Prichard, a behavioural psychologist and social health science lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide, said fitspiration has been shown to increase body dissatisfaction and negative mood.

“While fitspiration images may inspire health and physical fitness, they focus heavily on appearance with the implied message that women now need to be skinny and toned to have the ideal body,” she said.

“For most women, achieving or maintaining the look of a fitness model may not be attainable and given the focus on thinness, and not just fitness within the images, self-comparisons with the images may lead to greater body image concern.”

Dr Julia Coffey, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Sydney, agreed with Dr Prichard.

She said social media users are making themselves unhappy trying to attain a figure that might not be healthy for them.

“These images are tied up as being representative of health when in fact they’re just representative of a particular kind of image that will very often have little to do with the experience of health and what is actually attainable,” she said.

“People will have very skewed understandings of what health is and will not recognise how healthy and well their bodies are actually working.”

Fitspiration has grown in popularity since thinspiration, which encouraged eating disorders through images of underweight bodies, was removed from Tumblr in 2012 and Instagram in 2013.

In comparison, fitspiration privileges athleticism over thinness through positive lifestyle changes as opposed to self-deprivation.

Jess Baller, co-founder of Instagram fitspiration blog JKM Fitness and personal trainer, thinks the movement is fantastic.

“You see more and more healthy people or young people that are actually interested in their health,” she said.

“It’s helping a lot of people. You go on your Instagram when you’re having a lazy day and see all the fit people and people that are exercising or what they ate for lunch and it motivates you.

“As you see results it helps build your confidence which a lot of girls don’t have, so it’s nice to achieve something, even in a small way.”

“It’s nice to achieve something, even in a small way.””

— Jess Baller, JKM Fitness

For Adelle Cousins, who runs The Lazy Girls Guide to Fitness as part of Where the Styled Things Are, the motivation helped her overcome health issues and prevent surgery.

“It’s changed my life,” she said. “I’m rarely sick now and I understand the benefits of being healthy.”

“I show images of my body I guess because I’m proud of how far I’ve come and that proud feeling follows through to others,” she said.

A recent study by the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods at Laval University in Canada discovered health blogs written by registered dieticians are benefiting people’s health and wellbeing.

The study also identified the internet as the main source of health information for most women.

But Dr Prichard said the problem is not all blogs are written by accredited dietitians or fitness professionals.

Josie Reade, an honours graduate from the University of Melbourne who researched the Instagram fitness trend, said the saturation of self-proclaimed ‘health experts’ on social media means misleading information is readily available and unregulated.

“The free-for-all environment and participatory culture of social media means that certain users can spread their questionable wisdom and promote fad diets under the guise of health,” she said.

“In this realm of self-responsibility, failure to measure up to bodily standards is seen as a result of individual shortcomings.

“The body becomes a DIY creation and something a person can have control over.”

The authority of bloggers has been questioned recently after wellness blogger Belle Gibson revealed the advice she claimed cured her counterfeit cancer was fabricated.

Dr Coffey said bloggers with this amount of influence should have a basic level of understanding about health before they share their ideas on the topic.

“If someone is giving nutrition advice I would expect that they had some kind of background in nutrition and a qualification in that, and the same with fitness exercises,” she said.

“People will very easily injure themselves if they’re following bad advice.”

Dr Coffey thinks greater awareness on more general medical and public health messages are needed.

Instead, alternative messages are usually promoted by bloggers trying to sell a certain product or image.

“The body becomes a DIY creation and something a person can have control over.””

— Josie Reade, University of Melbourne

Stephanie Jong, a PhD student at Flinders University researching online fitness culture and body image, said the pictures pressure individuals to make correct choices about their health based on what they view.

“The users become their own filter in needing to determine the credibility of the posts themselves,” she said.

Ms Baller said some fitness blogs provide qualified information, but people need to choose the right one.

“It’s like with anything, you’re not going to go to a doctor if he’s unqualified,” she said.

“There’s a lot of unqualified people on Instagram giving fitness advice, giving diet plans, giving exercise programs and that makes us uneasy.

“Two of us have qualifications in personal training so we have a good background to decipher what is correct.”

The three girls started JKM after customers from the sports store where they work regularly asked for incorrect footwear based on what fitness bloggers wore.

“People doing exercises and running are using incorrect shoes and we know how damaging that can be to their feet and your whole bone structure,” she said.

“Even Kayla Itsines, who is a well-known figure in fitness, wears the wrong shoes.”

Social media users are not only confusing health with aesthetics, but also with popularity.

Ms Jong said the validation people crave from their online peers arises from the immediacy of feedback on social media.

“They’re posting these photos, and they’re seeing likes and they’re seeing these comments come up straight away,” she said.

“If someone posts a picture of abs, and it gets 2000 likes, people know that is popular and therefore it becomes a bit more desired.”

Body image has been rated one of the top three greatest concerns for young people for the past seven years, according to Mission Australia’s surveys.

And a recent study on fitspiration’s effect on body image by Marika Tiggemann and Mia Zaccardo from Flinders University, shows women compare themselves more to their perceived peers than to models.

Social media fuels this body comparison by presenting fitness bloggers as real everyday people and their bodies as normal and achievable.

In reality, most of the images are styled snap shots of real life hidden beneath Instagram filters.

Ms Baller said a lot of work goes into maintaining the bodies we see in these photos.

“More than you’d ever imagine,” she said.

“If you don’t stay on top of it, you lose it. It’s a lifestyle.”

Dr Prichard said good fitness blogs should present evidence-based and well-researched information, and images which promote health and fitness for the sake of health and fitness. While bad fitness blogs will display destructive posts.

“Fitspiration images that are likely to be more destructive to female body image include non-functional images, highly sexualised images, and images that are presented with appearance-based motivational text,” she said.

Despite fitspiration’s negatives, she said being fit and healthy is a good thing to strive for.

“I think people are starting to recognise that and are looking for interesting, motivational ways to improve their health and fitness.”

Ms Baller said the beauty of fitspiration is the awareness it is creating.

“As long as you’re aware that you need to change your lifestyle and you’re aware of your eating and you’re aware of the fact that you need to go exercise today, you’re moving forward.”


Australia’s Top 5 Fitness Bloggers

1. Kayla Itsines
The 23-year-old personal trainer from Adelaide uses social media to promote a bikini body with her popular workout programs and healthy eating guidelines. Her social media shows a range of workout pictures, before and afters and customer success stories, healthy meals, motivational quotes, and selfies in workout gear.

Instagram: 3 million followers
Facebook: 1.7 million likes
Twitter: 198, 000 followers
Qualifications: Personal training

2. Emily Skye
Emily is a fitness model and self-proclaimed health and fitness expert from the Gold Coast. She advises on exercise programs, meal plans and mindset. She regularly shares exercise posts or sportswear pictures to help motivate her followers over her number of social media platforms.

Instagram: 905, 000 followers
Facebook: 4.4 million likes
Twitter: 72, 200 followers
Youtube: 17, 973 subscribers
Pinterest: 2, 872 followers
Qualifications: Personal training

3. Steph Pacca
This Perth personal trainer’s Instagram is filled to the brim with photos of her lean, toned figure. Her training specialises in fat loss and muscle definition which she promotes through her 30 day guide.

Instagram: 572, 000 followers
Qualifications: 5 years training in competitive boxing, 7 years of state level athletics, Personal Training

4. Base Body Babes

Sydney sisters Felicia Oreb and Diana Johnson love inspiring and motivating women to lead healthy active lifestyles. They aim to educate on how to exercise, eat well and get in shape. Their social media posts offer a combination of health, fitness, food and fashion.

Instagram: 505, 000 followers
Facebook: 13, 000 likes
Twitter: 1, 188 followers
Youtube: 525 subscribers
Pinterest: 1, 072 followers
Qualifications: Personal training

5. Lorna Jane Active
Lorna Jane Clarkson is the founder of popular active wear label Lorna Jane, and beloved veteran of the Australian fitness industry. The Brisbane entrepreneur’s active living philosophy helped spark the global online fitness movement. Her health and fitness blog Move Nourish Believe, mobile app, and extensive social media presence seeks to guide followers toward a healthier happier lifestyle. Her posts contain motivating messages, pictures of her sportswear range, workouts, and clean eating recipes.

Instagram: 496, 000 followers
Facebook: 1 million likes
Twitter: 36, 000 followers
Youtube: 8, 409 subscribers
Pinterest: 182, 041 followers

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