Study: Fitspirational images don’t actually lead people to move more

It’s hard to scroll through social media or roll through a grocery store checkout without seeing images of slim, athletic bodies these days. Fitspiration is everywhere we look, from billboards to magazines to product packaging.

But are any of these pictures actually motivating anyone to move more? According to a recent study published in Body Image, the short answer is no.


In the study, 106 female university students were randomly assigned to view one of three sets of images (thin ideal, athletic ideal, or muscular ideal), and then asked to perform some physical exercise. Information was collected on the participants’ current physical activity levels, fitspiration goals, current social media use, and body dissatisfaction level.

In each case, the participants automatically compared their own bodies to the ones in the images, which resulted in two problems.

  1. The first is that, though the fitness images were reported to be “inspirational,” they didn’t actually lead participants to exercise more. Their behaviour didn’t change.  
  2. The second, and perhaps even worse problem, is that the athletic images led to even greater body image concerns among participants. The authors suggest that this happens because athletic images exaggerate just how attainable such bodies are for normal people.

By perpetuating the idea that with a little hard work and the right diet anyone can have a super athletic, fitness-magazine-cover body, the images set people up for failure. The repeated use of these images makes an almost unobtainable ideal seem more normal and more easily obtained than it actually is. Just how easy it is to achieve these ‘perfect’ bodies is way oversold.


There are a few broad lessons that should be applied from this study.

The first is that the use of unrealistic, photoshopped, incredibly unattainable bodies to promote fitness needs to stop. This isn’t what health looks like. This isn’t what most people could or should look like. Whether it’s on Instagram, or the cover of Women’s Health, these images do more harm than good, leading few to move more and many to love their bodies less. Physical activity is good for all bodies, regardless of size. The more you do, the better you feel, and the better your body and mind will function.

The second is that we need to move past extrinsic motivation. External rewards like money, fame, and recognition rarely lie at the heart of lasting lifestyle changes. The idea that we can “fitspire” everyone to get in shape by showing them images of people in incredible shape is wrong. To effect meaningful change, the inspiration must come from within. It must be intrinsic and it has to be about moving for your health, to feel good, and most of all, to love your body.

The images that we’ve come to expect on our screens and on magazine racks everywhere have no place in inspiring or motivating people to move more. They lead people to feel worse about their bodies and to blame themselves for not achieving an ideal that may very well be impossible, or at the very least, require non-stop hard work.

They undermine the very confidence and motivation that people need to lead more active lives.

If we want people to move more, we need to see less of the ripped abs, slender legs, and taut arms. Stop looking to Instagram for your next hit of fitspiration, and start looking within. You have the strength, the confidence, and the motivation to lead an active life. Don’t let an unrealistic magazine cover image dare get in your way.