Is "fitspo" unhealthy?

Cristen Conger

While researching for an upcoming Stuff Mom Never Told You episode on whether "fitness inspiration"/"fitspiration"/"fitspo" is any healthier than its not-so-distant cousin "thin inspiration"/"thinspiration"/"thinspo" I headed over to fitspo-friendly Pinterest to see what the image sharing site served up. In short, it was a lot of headless, sweaty, sculpted female torsos. I was about to write "impressively sculpted" then thought better of it because that descriptor is one of the problems with these supposedly inspirational snapshots since they often awe us with what's often an unnatural standard.

Emblazoned on the bodies of so many sweaty (Always sweaty! Should be called "sweatspo" if you ask me, but nobody did.) are pithy sayings that range from the genuinely inspiration -- "Be positive, patience and persistent" -- to the sinister --"It's always too early to quit." And mostly, the fitspo that I found motivates with body-shaming threats that twist exercise into a constant state, rather than a healthful retreat. For instance:

One thing that struck me, too, about the fitspo ethos is how much it echoes the hallmarks of compulsive exercise. This compulsive exercise checklist comes from Dr. Suzanne Girard at UC Berkeley.

  • Preoccupation with exercise or intrusive thoughts about exercise
  • Finding time to exercise -- at any cost
  • Exercise substitutes social life
  • Feeling overly anxious, guilty or angry if you can't exercise
  • Exercise driven primarily by a desire to control weight, shape and body composition
  • Exercise as "punishment" for eating "bad" food
  • How you feel about yourself is based on the amount of exercise you get
  • Constant dissatisfaction with physical achievements

Those are precisely the types of unhealthy behaviors rooted on by fitspo: that you should feel guilty if you don't workout, that your figure isn't adequate, that there's no excuse to not push yourself to the limit. And since it's connected to cleaner diets and exercise, fitspo gets a pass as being good for folks, escaping the degree of censure social media outlets like Pinterest have brought down on thinspo. Yet the clinical signals hallmarks of a disordered relationship with one's body are still there: anxiety, obsession and perfectionism. Is that really the wind we want at our backs pushing us as we spring toward the top of the hill?