New Pinterest fad may fuel unhealthy fitness obsession


So you’re on the couch entering hour three of a Pinterest binge. This is a time when you probably could use a little motivation to get yourself to finally log off and drag your butt to the gym.

That’s essentially the point of “fitspiration” – a cutesy, Internetty term for images and slogans meant to inspire people to meet their fitness goals, hundreds of which are posted and pinned every day on image-heavy social media sites like Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. And a lot of “fitspo,” as it’s nicknamed, does a great job of doing what it’s intended to do: inspire people to get and stay fit, say body image experts and fitness bloggers.

But mixed right into those healthy messages are also some sneakily harmful underlying themes.

“A lot of these things are very reasonable -- they say things like ‘Just start,’” says David LaPorte, a psychologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has studied body image and social media. “Or, I love this one: ‘Failure isn’t falling down; it’s refusing to get back up.’

“The trouble is when you surround all those good messages with images of people that are unattainable for most women, quite frankly,” he says. 

Because many of the “fitspo” images actually look a lot like “thinspiration” – and if you’re unaware of that term, do a quick search on Pinterest, Tumblr or Instagram. You’ll immediately find thousands of photos of heartbreakingly thin young women (and some guys, too, but mostly young women): It’s a lot of protruding hipbones, visible rib cages, “thigh gaps." Search for “fitspiration,” and you’ll see pages and pages of similar images -- it's usually a headless shot, zoomed in on a defined, flat set of sweaty abs. Here's a couple examples of these images from Tumblr:

“It sets up an equally unrealistic standard of beauty, but it’s under the guise of being healthy,” says Charlotte Hilton Anderson, a fitness blogger from Denver. On her blog, she’s called fitspo “thinspo in a sports bra,” and many body image experts say she’s exactly right.

Recently, Tumblr and Pinterest responded to reports about the negative impact of “thinspo” or “thinspiration” by placing PSA-style language at the top of the results page when a user searches for those and other terms that may promote self-harm; Instagram banned both hashtags entirely. But fitspo has so far stayed mostly under the radar.

Out of curiosity, LaPorte pulled up two Pinterest pages to look at them side-by-side: in one he’d searched for thinspiration and the other, fitspiration. “There are very, very subtle differences, but they look, for all intents and purposes, identical,” says Laporte, who was half-seriously designing a study as we spoke over the phone. (“We could pull them up and have people sort them out by fitspo or thinspo,” he mused. “I’m going to have to put an undergrad on this one.”)

It’s worth noting the similarities because researchers who study body image and mental health have linked “thinspo” to some potentially damaging consequences. In 2010, LaPorte published a study that showed even when people with no history of eating disorders briefly looked at thinspo sites, it actually changed their eating patterns: On average, they ate about 3,000 fewer calories the next week. The participants only clicked around the thinspo sites for about 90 minutes at a time. 

“Now imagine you’re a 16 or a 14 year old … and you go onto these websites for hours,” LaPorte says.

And a 2006 Italian study found that thinspo sites worsen some of the issues associated with eating disorders: specifically, asceticism, competition and obsession for control.

Few academic studies have looked at thinspiration, and none have considered fitspiration. But psychologist Mia Holland, who specializes in treating patients with eating disorders, sees more than a few links between fitspo and compulsive exercise. While scrolling through a “fitspiration” tagstream on Pinterest, slogans like “Exercise til it hurts” and “Pain is only in your mind” particularly stood out to Holland.

“Those are very unhealthy mottos to live by when exercising. If something hurts, STOP,” Holland said via email. “The body is a great barometer of its own tolerance. Yes, we do experience some discomfort when working out. … However, if the pain is unbearable, it is time to stop!

“Slight discomfort can mean a muscle is working – full pain means we are pushing it too hard and need to stop,” she says.

Holland reiterates that there really is some healthy, positive stuff under the fitspo and fitspiration hashtags, too, like healthful recipes or practical and safe workout tips. And if the fitspo online community is where you’re getting your encouragement to lace up your running shoes and head out the door – well, that’s wonderful, and you should keep it up! But be sure you're aware of some of the sneaky, negative messages hiding there.

“(Fitspiration) does contain some good advice and healthy recipes, but that can veil the hidden negative and potentially harmful messages such as ‘Exercise til it hurts,’” Holland says. “If someone sees the positive information listed ... they will be swayed to think all of (fitspiration) is positive and helpful – when in fact, it is not.”

Jodi Rubin, the creator of Destructively Fit, a training program to help fitness instructors spot eating disorders in their clients, offers this advice for people who want to participate in the online fitness community without becoming dangerously obsessive about it: Being active can and should be fun, she reminds.

“I use that as a gauge often,” Rubin says. “Hopefully, exercise is fun for people. When it starts to become a drag, when it starts to feel like if I don’t go then I’m not going to feel good about myself” – that’s when it becomes a potential problem, she says.