Fans of fitness influencers exercise more – but they’re also more depressed, new study claims

New study finds fitness influencers can have a polarizing effect on their followers

Olivia Hebert
Los Angeles
Wednesday 05 June 2024 16:09 BST
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Fans of fitness influencers are more likely to be depressed despite exercising more, according to a study.

According to a new study published in the Cyberpsychology Journal, young adults who follow fitness influencers on social media are physically healthy. Results show that participants reported a disproportionately higher amount of “vigorous exercise” as well as fruit and vegetable intake. However, participants also reported poorer mental health.

The survey saw 1,022 young adults aged 18 to 35 surveyed from May to November 2021 from three different English-speaking countries in various ways: New Zealand looked at students from the University of Orago, the US used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the UK received their results through surveyor, Prolific. Researchers selected these countries for their high social media use, and focused their attention on Instagram use, primarily due to its substantial user population among young adults.

Ultimately, the study found that young adults who actively follow fitness influencers on Instagram are more likely to report engaging in vigorous exercise and consuming more fruits and vegetables than non-followers, suggesting more healthy lifestyles. However, they also reported higher levels of both mental distress and greater well-being than people who didn’t follow the influencers. Researchers believe that this indicates that this demographic of young adults is vulnerable to fitness and food-related compulsive behaviors, including eating disorders.

The researchers noted a marked difference between followers and non-followers, with the latter having a healthier mind-body relationship as they practiced vigorous exercise compared to those who vigorously exercised and followed the influencers. They attributed these results to be consistent with previous findings in other studies on the negative effects of following Instagram influencers.

The study cited a January 2024 systematic review of 12 intervention studies that looked into how social media influencers sharing health information or Instagram images fitting the ideal can affect the minds of those following them. Researchers found that the majority of participants were negatively impacted, with many reporting unhealthy food intake, mood, and poor body image.

By enforcing the so-called “fit ideal,” fitness influencers may encourage “compulsive levels of exercise and obsessions with healthy or pure diets,” also known as orthorexia, according to the study. Internalizing what they see on their social media feeds or their favorite influencer’s espousing can lead to poorer body image, especially if the person is motivated to get healthier or follow a regimen purely for appearance-related motivations.

Researchers suspect that appearance-motivated exercising may increase the likelihood of poorer mental health among those who follow health influencers. Social comparison and damaging intentions can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety, and negative body image.

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