Is ‘Fitspo’ making us less active?

Despite the rising prevalence of “Fitspo” in social media and marketing, Australian adults’ participation in physical activity is declining.

Everywhere we look – Facebook, Instagram, Magazines, Newspapers, Television – there are a barrage of Fitspo images portraying what fitness supposedly looks like.  Apparently fitness and health are about rippling six pack abdominals, tanned tense muscles, ‘thigh gaps’, lifting huge weights, whilst wearing perfectly matched lycra outfits.

We’re told over and over that “Sweat is fat crying” and “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and “The only bad workout is the one you didn’t do” and “Summer bodies are made in the winter”.

Apparently this is supposed to be motivating?

There was a time when I too thought that some of the less extreme Fitspo messaging was helpful. Years later, I’ve learned that these ‘Fitspo’ tropes instead contribute to guilt, shame, insecurity, anxiety and obsession.  It’s not making us more active, it’s alienating people from their own bodies.

Fitspo tells us only hard exercise counts

These “Go hard or go home” messages make us think that a stroll to the local park in the sunshine “doesn’t count”.  (Count towards what exactly?  All movement counts towards your health).  We get the idea that there’s ‘no point’ to easy, enjoyable movement and all exercise should be gruelling and exhausting, or we shouldn’t bother moving at all.

Sure, there’s a percentage of people who enjoy exercising at a lung burning, shaky muscle pace, and if it’s appropriate for their level of experience, their health/injury history, and they’re incorporating plenty of rest and recovery, then that’s awesome!  However you don’t NEED to do this high intensity exercise in order to get health benefits from movement.  And you definitely do not need to feel guilty or ashamed for not enjoying this type of movement!

Fitspo tells us that we can see health

Fit, healthy bodies come in a vast range of sizes and shapes.  Even professional athletes come in a vast range of size and shapes!  Yet, Fitspo pictures portray ‘health’ with one body type again and again.

Fitspo implicitly tells us that if only we exercise hard enough and often enough we’ll look like that too

(Newsflash – we will not all look the same even if we ridiculously all did the same exercise and ate the same way.)  

Fitspo also implicitly tells us that having this type of body (that’s currently fashionable) will make us more worthy humans.

It portrays having this kind of body as being the key to all the love, success, fulfilment and happiness that you could ever want.  (Newsflash – you can have these amazing things at any size or shape.)

Our culture is sending the message more and more that to be ‘healthy’ (and win some kind of life jackpot) we need to channel ‘Fitspo’.

So what happens to:

  • the beginners who have never done much physical activity?
  • anyone who is insecure about their body?
  • those who feel embarrassed or unsure?
  • people who have been told they’re uncoordinated or not sporty?
  • the ill?
  • the injured?
  • the disabled?
  • the vast majority of us who cannot identify with ‘Fitspo’ models?

The Fitspo messaging is so unrelatable, and so all or nothing, that the outcome is choosing nothing.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that there has been a 5% drop in participation in sport and physical activity in Australians aged over 15 years in 2013/4 compared with 2011/2.

There is more so-called inspiration to move, yet we’re less inclined to move.


Exercise has become all about achieving the ‘body beautiful’

Even when exercise is marketed as being about getting stronger or fitter, we’re presented with booty and ab pics to represent strength and fitness.  So it’s no wonder that when people adopt a new physical activity program, they do so with the goal of changing how their body looks.

The research shows us that exercising for body-related motives is not only associated with social physique anxiety, depression, anxiety, reduced self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction (Frederick & Morrison, 1996; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008; Strelan et al., 2003), but also with less exercise participation (Segar et al., 2006; Segar et al., 2008).

In short, if your motivation for exercising is changing your appearance, you’re much less likely to exercise and stick at it.

People who participate in physical activity for intrinsic reasons (enjoyment, feeling good, learning a skill, competence) are more likely to adhere it over the long term.

Stelan et al. (2003) supported this conclusion from the opposite point of view: women who reported exercising for enjoyment and mood enhancement tended to report greater body satisfaction, body esteem, and self-esteem.

So what do we need to do?

We need to unfollow, hide and delete the ‘Fitspo’ messaging that makes us feel anxious, insecure, alienated or obsessive.  We need to start calling out brands by commenting and letting them know how their marketing makes us feel.

We need to choose movement we enjoy, that makes us feel good, rather than forcing ourselves to do exercise we can’t stand.

We need to focus on moving for the purpose of feeling good, functioning well, becoming more competent at something we love, or simply just enjoyment.

The fitness industry needs to start talking to all people – not just the small percentage of people who are already keen on intensive exercise.  We need to acknowledge and support all people and all bodies to find movement they enjoy that is appropriate for them.  We need to guide people towards intrinsic goals, and point out fantastic progress that has nothing to do with appearance.  We need to keep perspective that movement is just one element of good health, and movement takes many forms – not just sweaty, gym based forms.

We need to be inclusive.

Written by Jodie Arnot

[Author’s note: A common reaction is “Oh Fitspo doesn’t worry me“, or “I’m not affected“, or “I personally find it motivating“.  Just because something isn’t a problem for YOU doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.  We need to all approach life’s issues with compassionate consideration for all people’s experiences and challenges.  Injustice requires many, many people to stand up and speak out, and social change cannot happen if everyone is only paying attention to their own lives.]

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