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28 May 2024

Fitness influencers have a negative impact on mental health
BY Kath Hudson

Social media health influencers can help change behaviour but can also cause mental distress

Social media health influencers can help change behaviour but can also cause mental distress
photo: Shutterstock/Dean Drobot

New research shows that following social media health influencers motivates young people to exercise more vigorously and eat more fruit and vegetables, but their mental health often suffers.

Healthier But Not Happier? The Lifestyle Habits of Health Influencer Followers, published in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, was a cross-sectional study of 1,022 18 to 25-year-olds across New Zealand, the US and the UK, who completed a survey in 2021 about their lifestyle habits, including measures of social media usage, dietary and exercise habits and mental health.

Results showed that health influencer followers reported more vigorous exercise, higher fruit and vegetable intake and better well-being, but also greater distress – depression, anxiety and negative mood, compared to non-followers. Age, gender, ethnicity, education level, socioeconomic status and body mass index were taken into consideration.

Higher distress was especially pronounced among those who followed food or diet-related health influencers. Following health influencers appeared to disrupt the typical protective relationship between health behaviours and distress and more vigorous physical activity was associated with higher distress levels, compared to non-followers.

Influencers are often perceived as more credible, trustworthy, knowledgeable, authentic and attractive than traditional messaging channels, which might make them more effective in health behaviour engagement.

Possible harms identified with health influencers include reinforcing the fit ideal and presenting unrealistic body images, which are both associated with increased body dissatisfaction, depressive symptoms and compulsive levels of exercise and obsession with particular diets. Compulsive exercise and appearance-related motivations to exercise and eat well can disrupt the typical positive relationship between healthy behaviours and mental health.

Social media usage has also been correlated with poor adolescent wellbeing, decrements in body image and poorer mental health. The report says: “use of visual platforms like Instagram may be particularly harmful to mental health because they focus on appearance, which drives social comparison and negative body image.”

The research authors conclude that although health influencers may be effective at changing behaviours, more research is needed before recommending them as such.

What's your view of influencers? Are they useful in inspiring behaviour change? Do they wield too much power? Email us at [email protected]



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