When Health Inspiration on Social Media Becomes Unhealthy

TL;DR: When we use social media to help us find the inspiration and support we need to stick with our health and fitness goals, it’s equally important to guard against potentially damaging effects on our mental health.

Online or off, fitness has always been social. We’ve known for 10 years, for example, that when your friend IRL gains weight, you’re more likely to follow suit.

So it’s no surprise that as social media changes relationships and networks, these shifts can also affect our health. And while it’s opened up unprecedented opportunities for those who want to get in shape, it also presents new dangers.

Social media allows us to select our networks based on interests rather than circumstance, finding inspiration and empowerment in like-minded communities we might never meet offline.

From SoulCycle evangelists to a thriving Instagram community of hula hoopers, any athlete — or dieter — can find a tribe.

But for some, particularly those susceptible to eating disorders, the line between inspiration and obsession is dangerously thin.

It’s easy to forget that images in our feeds can be as photoshopped, curated and damaging as traditional media — even the #fitspo with “positive” messaging. But the immediacy and intimacy of these platforms can make messaging feel more authentic, and therefore easier to internalize.

What’s more, algorithms that prioritize content based on “likes” lack the fact checking of traditional media. When emotional impact trumps facts, unscientific but values-laden food trends like the clean eating movement naturally emerge.

It’s in this cultural environment that a new eating disorder called “orthorexia” has arisen, characterized by a moralistic, obsessive fixation on only eating “clean” or “pure” foods. In fact, a recent study linked orthorexia specifically to Instagram use.

“I would not have recovered if I was on Instagram [at the time],” confirms influencer and health coach Christina Rice, discussing her recovery from orthorexia.

So how can you find your health and fitness inspiration on social media without taking it too far? Everyone’s mental health is different, but here are five tips to help find balance:

  1. If it feels bad, unfollow. “If there’s anyone who just makes you feel bad about yourself, get rid of them,” says Pixie Turner, the nutritionist and blogger who authored the study linking orthorexia to Instagram usage. “You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.”

  2. Keep your follow count diverse. “Because you can choose exactly who you follow on Instagram… it creates this echo chamber effect whereby you are surrounded by people who think... and potentially eat the same way as you,” explains Turner. This bubble can produce a skewed perception of what “normal” eating looks like.

  3. Take breaks. Turner says the average young person spends 22 minutes on Instagram a day, and recommends cutting back if your usage is well above that. Here’s how you can check yours.

  4. Get outside. Paradoxically, in our ultra-connected culture, it’s easy to lose touch with the “real world.” Rice says she can go days without real-life contact when working from home, so she makes leaving the house a daily habit: “If I didn’t go on walks, I wouldn’t have any perception of what other women looked like [offline].”

  5. Get help. If you sense something isn’t right with your mental health, talk to a professional. Start with an online mental health screening if you need an extra push.

Bottom line? Pay attention to how your consumption is affecting you and know when to disconnect.

At Sparkloft, we know we work in an industry that makes it especially hard to unplug—but we know it’s essential to our mental health, happiness, and creativity that we do—so we make it a point to do it as a team as often as we can. Check out our post about the importance of the digital detox to learn more about how Sparkloft finds the time to occasionally ditch the screens and reconnect offline.

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