The #fitspo photos of toned, muscular bodies in your social media feeds may motivate you to get your sweat on. But those pictures could have a negative side too. For some women, posting such images could be a sign of risky eating and exercise habits, according to researchers from the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.
For their study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the researchers looked at 101 women who regularly posted fitspiration on Instagram—often workout photos, sometimes overlain with a quote (think “Strong beats skinny every time”). A comparison group consisted of 102 women who regularly posted travel pictures, another popular type of inspirational content on Instagram.
What the researchers discovered about the fitspo-posters was alarming: Nearly 18% of them were at risk for diagnosis with a clinical eating disorder, compared to just over 4% of the women in the travel group. The study participants who posted fitspiration were also more likely to experience feelings of shame and depression when they missed a workout—which is a a key indicator of compulsive exercise, according to the study authors.
“It seems likely, at least for some women, that even though they may present as fit and healthy, regularly posting fitspiration is a culturally sanctioned way of rationalizing dietary restriction, disordered eating, and over-exercising,” the authors concluded.
As the researchers point out, #fitspo may not be as harmless as it seems. For one, it entails “repeated representation of only one body type (lean and toned) that is unattainable for most women,” they write. What’s more, fitspo focuses on how working out can make you look, rather than the long list of important benefits exercise can provide, from improved digestion and energy to more balanced moods and less inflammation.
So while a snapshot of sculpted abs may help you get off the couch and to the gym, it’s important as ever to evaluate the real reasons you work out, and make sure you’re sweating first and foremost to get fit and healthy, physically and mentally.