Who Can Motivate You to Go to the Gym?

Before you tack another six-pack to your Pinterest board, read this.

Posted May 15, 2015

Source: OPOLJA/Shutterstock

"Fitspiration" claims to inspire people to get off their butts and burn more calories. Most of these supposedly motivational memes portray men and women (though mostly women) in spandex, typically drenched in sweat and baring a rock-hard midriff, alongside a slogan that encourages pushing through pain, exhaustion, hunger, and (occasionally) vomiting.

How inspiring.

To date, however, there is no research confirming fitspiration’s role in helping people maintain a healthy, sustainable level of physical activity. In fact, instead of a link between "fitspo" (the chummy abbreviation of fitspiration) and actual time spent exercising, decades of research connects exposure to thin and muscular ideal bodies with body dissatisfaction, elevated risk of eating disordered behavior, and impaired mood.

When individuals with eating disorders in particular view images of underweight models embodying thin or muscular ideals, their self-esteem plummets, they may grow more anxious and depressed, and their symptoms often get worsei. Viewing images of thin women puts a dent in adolescent girls’ body image and can make them more inclined to want to lose weight, regardless of how thin they may already beii. Men experience dips in bodily satisfaction, and a heightened desire to shed pounds, following even brief peeks at photos of lean, topless malesiii

Anecdotal claims of fitspiration’s ability to keep people powering through their workouts abound. But the question remains as to how such motivation materializes from this imagery and whether this drive helps or harms a person’s overall well-being.

If viewing extremely toned bodies (paired with sentences that foster guilt for stomaching anything other than a steamed vegetable) makes us go for a jog, is that really so bad? After all, sitting around too much is associated with reduced longevity, depression, anxiety, and even low self-esteemiv. So if a little self-loathing gets you up off the couch, perhaps, in the long run, it’s okay, right?

A desire to workout because you want to emulate the toned, fatless figure on a fitspiration meme does qualify as motivation. At best, however, this motivation has a very short lifespan. You may lose your stamina after learning just how much exercise those aspirational bodies actually require, or how limited your food options would be in order to maintain them. If you don’t actually enjoy the gym, your interest in engaging in high-intensity exercise to lose weight will peter out pretty quicklyv. At worst, fitspiration may foster motivation that compels you to work out lest you feel worse about your figure in comparison to an ultra-fit ideal. This could be a red flag for disordered thinking.

The extreme messages and meanings conveyed by most fitspiration memes are eerily similar to the self-hating sentiments that ran through my own head when I was in the worst throes of my exercise addiction. The all-or-nothing, black-and-white attitude toward working out encapsulated in so many fitspo posts was precisely what led me to physically injure myself, wreck my own sanity, and get lost in a bubble of self-destruction. It was fueled by an irrational fear that if I didn’t have a six-pack, I didn’t deserve to be alive.

Studies show that individuals with pathological attitudes towards food are hyper-attunedvi to messages about eating and weight control. This “attentional bias” tends to recede as symptoms relentvii, but while an eating disorder rages on, the salience of imagery related to all things edible remains high. (Similarly, compulsive gamblers have been shown to display an attentional bias towards words related to their problem behaviorviii.) Research into the cognitive functioning of those who grapple with substance misuse disorders found that the more hinged a person’s attention becomes on a substance, the more intense their craving to use it growsix.

To my knowledge, no studies have examined whether those who overdo it at the gym have an attention bias toward imagery related to exercise or fitspiration. One studyx found that women who regularly exercised paid more attention to photos of people engaging in physical activity than non-exercising female counterparts. (Men, by contrast, pay more attention to physically active imagery regardless of how often they lace up their own sneakers.) However, since these participants were considered psychologically “normal," such findings are insufficient to back the argument that a pathological relationship with exercise would lead one to be hyper-responsive to exercise-related imagery. 

Still, attitudes predict behaviorxi. Research illustrates the role of attentional bias in predicting the symptom severity of eating disorders, gambling addictions, and substance misuse. It’s easy to assume that people who covet fitspo are more likely inclined toward excessive workout habits than those who ignore it. We can assume that people who enjoy sentiments such as, "Suck it up now so you don’t have to suck it in later," are more likely to implement those extreme beliefs during their workouts.

So, is fitspiration bad for us? It may not always be negative for everyone, though evidence suggests it is largely unhelpful. Apart from potentially fueling pathology (if not normalizing or condoning self-abuse, ostensibly in the service of “health”), fitspiration tends to promote an extreme attitude toward exercise that may lead individuals hoping to introduce a moderate level of physical activity into their lives to feel like fitness is not for them.

For most individuals, fitspo portrays unrealistic goals. It could alienate people from engaging in exercise, since they’re led to believe that the only way to do so is via a high-intensity boot-camp program, an over-the-top spin class, or a body builder’s weight training routine, instead of, say, a leisurely stroll, a bike ride, a slow-paced jog, or a non-competitive yoga class. (Yes, there is such a thing as competitive yoga. Google it.)

Real fitness isn’t about having a ridiculously low body-fat percentage, being able to run a mile in under seven minutes, or being so buff your biceps risk tearing your T-shirt sleeves. Fitness involves being active enough to get your blood flowing at least once a day; maintaining your heart, lung, brain, and bone health; and taking pleasure in the ability your body has to do more than sit in front of a computer screen.

Stay tuned for further reflections on fitspo, what some body-positive activists are doing to counter the worst of it, and how you can become a more informed consumer when making decisions about how to get (and stay) fit.

Google Images
Source: Google Images

(Oh, and if you want a laugh, check out this amusing set of fitspiration revisions courtesy of BuzzFeed.)


[i] Heather A. Hausenblas, Anna Campbell, Jessie E. Menzel, Jessica Doughty, Michael Levine, and J. Kevin Thompson, “Media effects of experimental presentation of the ideal physique on eating disorder symptoms: A meta-analysis of laboratory studies,” Clinical Psychology Review 33 (2013): 168-181. 

[ii] Marika Tiggermann & Jessiva Miller, “The Internet and Adolescent Girls’ Weight Satisfaction and Drive for Thinness,” Sex Roles 63, nos. 1-2 (2010): 79-90.

[iii] Rachel M. Galioto, The Effects of Exposure to Slender and Muscular Images on Male Body Dissatisfaction. MA Thesis. Kent State University. Ohio, 2013. Retrieved from: 

[iv] Mark S. Tremblay, Allana G. LeBlanc, Michelle E. Kho, Travis J. Saunders, Richard Larouche, Rachel C. Colley, Gary Coldfield, and Sarah Connor Gorber, “Systematic review of sedentary behaviour and health indicators in school-aged children and youth,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 8 (2011): 98. 

[v] Pedro J. Teixeira, Eliana V. Carraça, David Markland, Marlene N. Silva, and Richard M. Ryan, “Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systemic review,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9 (2012): 78. 

[vi] Roz Shafran, Michelle Lee, Zafra Cooper, Robert L. Palmer, and Cristopher G. Fairburn, “Attentional bias in eating disorders,” The International Journal of Eating Disorders 40, no. 4 (2007): 369-380.

[vii] Roz Shafran, Michelle Lee, Zafra Cooper, Robert L. Palmer, and Cristopher G. Fairburn, “Effect of psychological treatment on attentional bias in eating disorders,” The International Journal of Eating Disorders 41, no. 4 (2008): 348-354. 

[viii] Morten Boyer and Mark Dickerson, “Attentional bias and addictive behaviour: automaticity in a gambling-specific modified Stroop task,” Addiction 98, no. 1 (2003): 61-70. 

[ix] Matt Field and W. Miles Cox, “Attentional bias in addictive behaviors: A review of its development, causes, and consequences,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 97, nos. 1-2 (2008): 1-20. 

[x] Tanya R. Berry, John C. Spence, and Sean M. Stolp, “Attentional Bias for Exercise-Related Imagery,” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 82, no. 2 (2011): 302-309.

[xi] Geoffrey Haddock and Gregory R. Maio, “Attitude-Behavior Consistency,” in Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (New York: SAGE, 2007).