Why people’s fitness posts make us feel bad about ourselves

When you scroll through your Instagram and see friends and coworkers posting about finishing that marathon or meeting that weight loss goal, their happiness about their accomplishment can come at a cost to your mental wellbeing. This is the dark side of #fitspo (fitness inspiration) that a new study published in the journal Health Communication discovered.

Researchers Tricia Burke and Stephen Rains found that the more exercise-related posts you see in your feed, the more self-conscious and concerned about your weight you can become, which can result in an unhealthy body image. “Although people might have positive intentions with regard to posting about exercise online (e.g., promoting accountability and motivation), these posts can result in observers’ body dissatisfaction,” the study concluded.

Exercise posts increase our weight concern

How badly you felt about someone’s gym selfie depended on how you viewed the people in your social media feed. When researchers recruited 232 people to count the number of exercise-related posts they saw on their favorite social media platform, they found that people who felt they were similar to those frequent exercise posters were especially prone to feeling self-conscious.

“Similarity heightens social comparison, so if the person posting about exercise is someone who’s in your age group, has a similar build or a similar background, you might think that’s a pretty good reference, and that might spark in you even greater weight concern,” Rains, one of the authors, of the study, said.

But a marathon selfie is not always going to send you in a downward spiral about yourself. The researchers found that for people who make upward comparisons, or people who saw the exercisers as superior to them, they developed more positive exercise attitudes. ‘If my awesome friend could wake up early to run, why can’t I?’ becomes your motivating mantra to hold yourself accountable.

“With upward social comparisons, you tend to compare yourself to those you perceive as superior to you,” Burke said. “So, for example, if you’re in a classroom, you’d compare yourself to the smartest kid in class. In terms of exercise, if a person is posting a lot about exercise, they must be really fit, so you’re using that as a motivator.”

We measure ourselves by other people’s success. Sometimes, it can be motivating to observe your buddy’s fitness journey from afar. But sometimes, it may be better to opt out and unfollow.