Follow fitness Instagrammers – fitstagrammers – on the picture-sharing site and you will soon find your feed flooded with mind-boggling yoga poses and endless green smoothies. You’ll find beautifully flat-laid gym essentials, alongside snaps of toned, taut bodies in cute fitness gear. You will even find inspiring mantras to keep in mind for when you find yourself in the gym later.
It is all in the name of motivating others to get healthy, to get us moving and trading in the junk food for more virtuous options. Yoga teachers, personal trainers, competitive weight trainers have all taken to Instagram to share their #fitspo – short for fitspiration – but so too have people with no qualifications, to offer snaps of their six-packs, trainers, and healthy lunches.
For Antoinette Curley, a clinical specialist physiotherapist, anything we can do to get people moving is a good thing. It is important, she says, when only 32 per cent of the population is considered highly active, according to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2015.
“Instagram can certainly have motivational effects,” Curley says. “There’s no doubt it is changing the fitness world. It is very Instant and a photo can very powerfully provoke immediate effect and immediate comparison with that person and that can be motivating.”
Joanne Larby, known better as the Make-Up Fairy, is one of Ireland's biggest bloggers with more than 75,000 Instagram followers. Her book, Fairy Tales, included large chapters on health, fitness and body confidence. Her Instagram site is a mix of beauty, lifestyle and fitness photographs. She has found first-hand that her posts can motivate people to get moving.
“The mails I’d get daily say things like, ‘You make me put on make-up in the morning’ or ‘You make me want to go to the gym when I see your snaps of going to the gym. I was knackered and I saw you still did it too.’
“It is influencing [people] in a really positive way. A lot of the time, I’ll just snap my feet going into the gym and as a result, people will say ‘I didn’t want to go but you made me, thanks’.”
Nathalie Lennon, better known as Nat_Tilly on Instagram where she has more than 24,000 followers, started off her account documenting her journey with the Bikini Body Guide, one of the most famous Instagram fitness plans. Having found the motivation from other people's posts, she now is providing that through her own account.
“When I got into it, it was because other girls were posting about their workouts, and that got me motivated and inspired to do it, to get up and get active,” Lennon says. “These fitness accounts are just documenting the fact they did a workout. People feel a bit like, if you can do a workout, they can do it, too.”
Motivation to make better food choices can also be found by following these lifestyle and fitness accounts on Instagram, according to Orla Walsh, a dietician with Athletics Ireland, the Irish Institute of Sport and the Dublin Nutrition Centre.
“If someone is on Instagram, they’re going to post up a picture of a meal that is colourful and therefore, is a nice picture, but also encourages people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Only when your meal is colourful, can your meal be healthy, so I think that in itself has benefits. Because so many Irish people are overweight and we’re only getting bigger, I think any motivation we can get is beneficial,” she says.
However, it is not all positive. Walsh sees misinformation about diet being spread on Instagram regularly. “There are many people who can cook food well and then think they’re in a position to offer nutritional advice,” she says. “If it was something you could learn over the internet, I wouldn’t have studied for eight years at university. It is frustrating and sometimes people, especially impressionable teenagers or people with low self-esteem, are much more likely to take the celebrity’s advice.”
Some accounts advocate going dairy-free or carb-free, but Walsh notes there are consequences to this. While having some carb-free meals won’t harm you, you do need carbohydrates in order to be able to think straight. “If you remove these food-groups, you also remove the benefits the food group provides you,” she says.
Walsh gives the example of a regularly posted simple swap, of normal milk for almond milk in your morning porridge with blueberries. This, she says, leaves your meal without adequate protein, which can cause problems.
“When there’s inadequate protein in a meal, it will negatively affect the metabolism. But also, it is not feeding the muscle and bone tissues in our bodies, which are responsible for our metabolism. If you don’t feed your muscles and bones, they don’t have the necessary tools to rebuild themselves. It can over time lead to muscle and bone loss. It sounds like a healthy meal, it sounds tasty, but because of the inadequate protein intake, it comes with consequences.”
As a chartered physiotherapist, Curley has similar concerns about people blindly working-out without real-life guidance or safety warnings, especially where the fitstagrammers they follow may not have a qualification in physiotherapy or personal training.
“It is certainly important in encouraging us all to hit the national physical activity guidelines, but not if it is urging the viewer to push themselves that much harder when they’re exercising, because pushing yourself harder in an environment that’s not controlled can cause injury.
“ Injury stops us exercising and it can prevent those life long healthy goals that regular physical activity can lead to,” she adds.
Maeve Madden, an Irish model living in London, recently completed her personal training qualification after receiving some criticism on her fitness posts about not being qualified. She started posting videos of her own workouts when she had 8,000 followers on Instagram, but that has since blown up to 73,000. She says she will keep showing her own workouts but won't offer advice until she has her certificate in her hands.
“When I did the course, I didn’t learn anything new at the gym but I did learn about how the body heals itself and the way the muscles work and how to do everything in conjunction with your entire body. It is fine for people to show what they do for themselves, but I don’t think it is right for people to advise other people when they’re not qualified.
“You see people posting a ‘core’ workout but they’ll only be working one set of muscles, but you have many different layers of the core so you really have to activate all of the muscles to get a good workout. I’ve learnt that from being on the course,” she adds.
Larby and Lennon both say that as their following has grown, they have learned to hold back on giving advice without a qualification. Larby says people expect her to want to become a personal trainer, but she has no interest in that, beyond what she already posts on Instagram. She redirects questions she can’t answer to her own trainers and dieticians.
Lennon, on the other hand, became a qualified personal trainer last year off the back of her success on Instagram. Despite having the qualification now, her number one thing she tells people is not to compare themselves to her or to anyone else online.
“I get messages asking how they can get a body like mine, but you don’t need a body like mine,” she says. “Your body is yours and it is enough. If you want to get healthier, there ares steps you can take, but you have to strive towards your own vision of perfect. Everyone’s journey is different and everyone’s body reacts differently, so the main thing is you’re getting up and getting active and you’re getting healthier.”
This is an important point, as it harks back to the debate over the role of media in influencing body image that we have been having since before the size zero debate took over. Larby, Lennon and Madden all reference girls with eating disorders contacting them. If you look at the demographics of Instagram, nearly 70 per cent of its users are female and 90 per cent are under 35.
Younger women in particular can be more body conscious and, according to Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist and mental health advocate, if a vulnerable group is consistently exposed to these images, comparing is inevitable.
“It can have a significant effect for some people who may have some vulnerabilities, for example if you have body dysmorphia or body consciousness, it can have a real compare and despair effect,” he says.
“If I’m a young girl and I’m looking at images of an idealised woman, I’m not seeing the spectrum of shapes and sizes. That idealised version can have a negative impact on certain individuals. For me it is about getting their head right, that their internal narrative is less critical, more nurturing, more compassionate.”
Acknowledging the motivational and inspirational benefits of these images, Murphy doesn’t feel so-called fitspo is inherently bad. Having seen similar being done amid sports teams and fitness groups for years in a closed capacity, he says it can keep people on track and provide a bonding piece and healthy competitiveness.
However, in extremes it can be dangerous for vulnerable groups and, for those without pre-existing conditions, it can have a drip-drip effect.
“Years ago, every movie, every poster had a smoker in it, way back when. There was a massive increase of people taking up smoking as a right of passive. We have to show caution to the diversity of human people, rather than showing an idealised model. I’m happy the idealised body is moving from thinness to fitness – but you’d still like that broad diversity,” Murphy says.
Curley says that according to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2015, Irish women between 15 and 24 were so far below the physical activity guidelines that they were at risk of sedentary illnesses. While she hopes the rise in Instagram fitness accounts will motivate more women in that age group to get up and go, she had similar concerns about the mental effects it might be having.
“Certainly Instagram and promoting positive exercise habits is a big benefit of Instagram,” Curley says. “What we need to emphasise is that fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. They’re often more muscular than thin and sometimes Instagram is all about external images and thinness, rather than internal health . . . .
“These photos are not always true to life, they’re modified. The more you see perfect photos, the more distorted your perception is that their lives are more perfect than yours, their bodies are more perfect when it is image based.”
This is something Larby also tries to put a focus on. “Body confidence, regardless of whether you go to the gym or not, is all about the mental state that you’re in. I’d definitely try to get at that, rather than shoving this size or that size. It is about embracing every shape.”
Madden echoes these thoughts, saying she tries to upload workouts you can do at home and easy alternatives to junk food, without an emphasis on weight.
“I would never promote losing weight, just being the best version of yourself, and people see they can make small changes. It doesn’t have to be killing yourself at the gym, you could just be doing a short workout at home three times a week. I always say it is not about trying to be me, it is about trying to better yourself.”
While she does feel there are dangers where unqualified people are posting, Walsh says fitstagrammers are promoting a new way of looking at healthy lifestyles, which in itself ultimately is a positive.
“Fewer people are looking towards fad diets and more people are looking to eat to train and that in itself is very healthy, because people are associating carbohydrates with fuel and proteins with recovery in sport. Most people now are realising the importance of being strong.
“I think the days where the waif-like image of a female have gone and it is all about being the healthiest version of your self,” Madden adds. “There are plenty of role models out there and I think there’s a lot we can thank social media for, but I would prefer if more dieticians and more qualified healthcare professionals would tweet, would Instagram, would Snapchat, to get a healthier and more accurate message across.”