Fitness Influencers Negatively Affect Mental Health, Research Suggests

Young adults who follow health influencers on Instagram may be physically healthier, but they’re more likely to be depressed and anxious, a new study finds

Young adults who follow health and fitness influencers on Instagram engage in more vigorous exercise and consume more fruit and vegetables but also experience higher distress scores (depression, anxiety and negative mood) than non-followers, according to a new study.

The study, “Healthier But Not Happier? The Lifestyle Habits of Health Influencer Followers,” published in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, examined the lifestyle, health and social media habits of 1,022 individuals ranging in age from 18 to 25 across the U.S., the U.K. and New Zealand. The participants completed a survey in 2021 and the study primarily focused on the impacts of influencers on the highly popular social media app Instagram.

It could be one of the great paradoxes of modern times, considering worldwide adult obesity has more than doubled since 1990, adolescent obesity has quadrupled and more than half of the world uses social media

Ultimately, the study demonstrates that followers of health influencers on social media may have some healthier behaviors than non-followers, but it comes at the cost of higher distress and well-being. As people look for ways to get healthy and source motivation, are wellness-focused Instagram users forced to choose between inspiration and gloom?

The Highs & Lows of Social Media

Instagram has catapulted fitness and wellness influencers such as Kayla Itsines, Mari Llewellyn and others to stardom (and entrepreneurship), giving them a platform to promote and monetize workouts, apps, activewear and supplements in front of a mostly female user audience, whom the study found to have a higher socioeconomic status and education level than non-followers. 

The power of social media is substantial — even Peloton has made a play to tap TikTok as a way to nab fitness-focused users while Pilates continues to gain traction with countless #PilatesPrincess videos.

credit: Souvik Banerjee on Unsplash

Interestingly, the authors found that health influencer followers who engage in more vigorous physical activity (150 minutes a week) were associated with higher distress levels, in stark contrast to non-followers and those who don’t use Instagram. Similarly, distress rates were especially pronounced among social media users who follow food or diet-related health influencers.

Finding a Healthy Balance

The paper acknowledges that following health influencers can have some positive health benefits, such as motivating users to make healthier food choices or inspiring them to “self-improve,” but that certain drawbacks, such as some health influencers reinforcing the “fit-ideal” body type, can lead to compulsive exercise or healthy eating.

The authors cite previous research that shows exercising for health and well-being is associated with a more positive body image, as opposed to “appearance-related” motivations to work out, which tend to be associated with a low body image. 

Social media — especially Instagram — has come under fire in recent years for findings that link high usage with low self-esteem and poor mental health among young users. It’s a point that the study’s authors make, noting that there could be negative consequences from Instagram usage in general, rather than just following health influencers on Instagram. 

Nonetheless, the study’s preliminary findings indicate that following health influencers may disrupt the positive relationship between health behaviors and mental health.

Although additional research is invited, the study’s authors provide a concise answer to the question of whether following health influencers is beneficial or harmful to young adults:

“It may be both,” they wrote. “In summary, although (health influencer followers) are healthier physically, they may not be happier.”

The post Fitness Influencers Negatively Affect Mental Health, Research Suggests appeared first on Athletech News.


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