When I first began following social media fitness stars, I felt like I’d discovered a whole new world. I’d been trying to slim down, and although I knew the basics of working out and eating well—I’d grown up playing sports and have always maintained a fairly healthy diet—I found that I had trouble staying motivated. But I felt genuinely inspired by the drive and success of all the lean, toned people offering workout advice and healthy recipes on every social media platform from Pinterest and Twitter to Facebook to Instagram.
I loved the creativity of the workouts and recipes I was seeing, and I started following lots (and I mean lots) of fitness accounts. I loved seeing a photo of a woman my age wearing a pair of spandex shorts and a sports bra—sans shirt, all the better to show off her chiseled abs—paired with the caption, "Strong is the new sexy. Get your workout in today." I wanted to feel comfortable working out in just a bra and spandex, and I thought that if I worked out hard the way she did, I’d be able to.
These influencers exponentially expanded my workout horizons. I’d see a video of some hyper-jacked female athlete busting out ring dips in the middle of a CrossFit workout and think, "That looks fun. I can do that." Scrolling a little farther down, I’d see a yogi effortlessly flip herself upside down into a handstand against a wall, then break out into upside-down wall push-ups. I told myself I could do that too. They made it look so easy and fun. Marathon running and powerlifting too? Sure. If they could do it, so could I.
I was sold on doing all of these workouts, despite the fact that I’d never done CrossFit, disliked yoga, have never been able to run long distances to save my soul, and hadn’t actually lifted truly heavy weights since high school. But all that didn’t matter; I had become motivated to look like these social media fitness mavens, and I was going to make it happen.
Until I couldn’t make it happen. I found that I couldn’t do more than one ring dip without my arms collapsing under me. Handstand wall push-ups? I’d never even been able to do a somersault—I’d always had an irrational fear of breaking my neck. Marathon running? That lasted five minutes until I decided to go back to doing my good ol’ treadmill sprints. Powerlifting? Yeah, no. A fractured spine from a couple years back guaranteed that effort wasn’t going to be successful. Suddenly, much of my newfound motivation was gone. It was hard to accept myself as I was. I vowed to be like these fitness gurus one day... it was just going to take hard work and time.
My Instagram feed had become a cesspool of kale salads, bulging quad muscles, protein powders, sunset yoga poses... I felt like I was suffocating.
I soon found myself absolutely surrounded by #fitspo. I couldn’t look at Pinterest without seeing hundreds of ripped bodies doing backbends and deadlifts, telling me not to expect a change if I didn’t make one. I couldn’t scroll through Facebook looking for the funny birthday video my friend posted without coming across a dozen workout videos and perfect bodies first.
And Instagram... dear Lord, my Instagram feed had become a cesspool of kale salads, bulging quad muscles, protein powders, sunset yoga poses... I felt like I was suffocating.
I fell into a back-and-forth, love-hate relationship with my social media accounts. I felt motivated and then unmotivated. I’d go for a run and think, "Man, I just ran three miles. For someone who doesn’t run long distance, I did well." But as soon as I was proud of myself, I’d check my social media and see a photo of some perfect-looking woman running down a beach, followed by the caption, "Just finished my 12-mile morning run. What are you doing to better yourself today?" There went my motivation, zapped right down the drain.
Change came one day when I’d decided to skip my workout. I’d done a killer HIIT and weights workout the day before, and my body was screaming at me to rest. But then on my Instagram feed, I came across a video of a yoked fitness guru slamming weights around angrily. "Sore is just an excuse," read the caption. "How many excuses have you made today? Get off your ass and move!" Suddenly, I wasn’t motivated anymore. I was pissed.
I was tired of comparing myself to other people—people I didn’t even know, who didn’t have the same lifestyle as me, who simply weren’t me. In that moment, I decided I was done. There was a slight moment of panic—What would happen if I really needed the tips and advice?—but then I remembered all of the times I felt put down by social media fitness stars, and I went through with it: I unfollowed every single fitness guru I’d been devoting my time to.
As of January 2017, there were more than 10 million #fitspiration hashtags on Instagram. And the shorter, more often used #fitspo hashtag? More than 37 million. The social media world is inundated with fitness speak and signifiers: inspirational quotes, toned bodies, freaking acai bowls.
Frankly, I think that consuming this much "fitspo" is killing our motivation and health. Yes, being surrounded by inspiration might seem like a great way to help us get ourselves in gear, but it’s easy to become consumed by it. A recent study demonstrated that Instagram #fitspo-style images had overall negative effects on the viewer’s body image. Another study tested 130 undergraduate students and found that while fitspiration images did motivate the students to exercise and eat healthy, the images ultimately led to increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction. Basically, social media platforms are portals for comparison, and if we compare ourselves to people we don’t know, who are nothing like us, and whose primary hobby is fitness, we’re bound to feel bad about ourselves.
In the months that followed my mass unfollowing, I felt genuinely happier. Choosing not to compare myself to others on social media really brought back my motivation and self-esteem. I could feel great about reaching a new personal record during my shoulder workout, and not have to worry about feeling less awesome than some super-ripped fitness expert. I realized that following fitness accounts on social media hadn’t made me healthier… in fact, I think they made me unhealthier.
I spent way too much time criticizing my own body and not enough time being proud of myself for working toward a better, healthier me. I wasn’t taking into account that fitness gurus and I live totally different lifestyles, and that I like mine just the way it is. I tend to eat healthy foods, but sometimes I also like to go out with my friends, knock back a few too many Moscow mules, and recover the next day with taquitos. Yeah, I don’t have the lifestyle that a fitness guru does... because I don’t want it. I try to find a balance between eating healthy and enjoying life.
I may not be able to do headstand push-ups, but I can track my treadmill sprint and plank-holding progress and feel good about it. CrossFit simply isn’t for me, which means I won’t have the body of a CrossFitter. But that’s OK.
If you do choose to follow social media fitness gurus, it’s important—and healthy—to take a step back and remember that your fitness journey is yours and yours alone. Your body and mind will both thank you.
Amanda Ogle is a freelance writer and editor covering travel, entertainment, food and drink, lifestyle and more. She is based in North Texas and has written for American Way, Texas Highways, Virtuoso Life, D magazine and more.