Opinion: there are dangers when we use Instagram and social media as main sources of information when it comes to health and fitness

There is no doubt that individuals' mental health is facing new and relentless challenges. The typical outlets that allow us to maintain our well-being have been taken away from us. With the introduction of Level 5 guidelines and restrictions, the country is approaching this period of lockown with far less cohesion and sense of community than we did in March.

Under Ireland’s current restrictions, all gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools and golf courses must remain closed. Those advocating for the reopening of gyms, on the basis that they are an essential service for the public’s mental health, point to the low transmission rate connected to gyms and sports facilities. But we recently saw the collapse of the contact tracing system, when over 2,000 people were asked to reach out to their close contacts themselves as contact tracers were overwhelmed.

The reality is that there will be further uncertainty as to where people do contract Covid-19 if the virus trajectory continues in this manner. Gym owners maintain their premises abide by all necessary public health guidelines to ensure the safety of their members and the community at large. They argue gyms are an outlet desperately needed at this time as people face into a long winter, with many isolated from friends and family.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, discussion on the closure of gyms as part of Level 5 restrictions with DCU's Niall Moyna and Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe

Exercise and a healthy diet are promoted as essential keys to everyone’s wellbeing, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic. Many gyms around country pivoted to online classes and influencers amped up their content-streams to meet increased demand. Video conferencing tools have served many of us incredibly well over the last seven months, offering connection during a time of isolation.

But fitness content on social media is a double-edged sword. While it offers regular gym-goers motivation and encouragement, an over reliance on these sources of motivation can result in users feeling pressure to avoid gaining weight or the 'Quarantine 15’. More downtime means more time to scroll through Instagram and all of its perfectly crafted images of models in Sweaty Betty leggings.

What is important to remember is that fitness content online is often an extension of diet culture. A belief system that encourages weight loss, champions the thin (usually white, cisgender) ideal and says some ways of eating are good and all others are bad.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor, the pros and cons of fitness and health trackers

Speaking to a numerb of influencers, they reported pressure to be very transparent and honest with their followers and the guilt associated with ‘falling off track’. Jenny is a personal trainer who provides online coaching with the goal of empowering women:

Jenny: I’d never put up a post of my little Friday night binge. I know there are people following me that might do whatever I do.

Another personal trainer interviewed spoke about the fall-out she experienced trying to maintain a ‘look’ that she felt was expected to show on Instagram:

Michelle: I had IBS and had hormonal issues, thyroid issues, issues with my menstrual cycle and when I looked at everything my hectic lifestyle was contributing to this. My so-called "healthy lifestyle" had induced it.

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From RTÉ's Atypical Summer podcast, personal trainer Gregg Marsh and nutritionist Mags Carey on fitness and healthy eating

Interestingly, many Instagram users interviewed reported that seeing influencers ‘being really real’ supported them in developing better relationships with their own diet and exercise routines.

Exercise provides stability and routine during times of increased anxiety and isolation and social media influencers are the most accessible when facilities around the country are closed. Influencers and gym owners are aware of the dangers of individuals using Instagram as their main information source when it comes to health and fitness. Influencers spoke about the difficulty in telling clients not to believe everything they see, and the need to know if a personal trainer was qualified to provide the information they share:

Shannen: I suppose it doesn’t change that people sometimes seek advice from the wrong professional. I had heard some people talk about giving a blue tick for being a registered healthcare professional in some capacity and I am fully on-board for that.

Speaking to influencers, their understanding is that exercise alone is not enough to support someone with complex or long-term mental health issues

Until the gyms reopen, social media use will remain high with gyms and trainers offering online services. Influencers will continue attempting to balance transparency with inspirational content. The topic of mental health and exercise is nuanced. Speaking to influencers, their understanding is that exercise alone is not enough to support someone with complex or long-term mental health issues. Similarly, relying on Instagram for motivation to workout can lead to a relationship with exercise wherein the compulsion to always be doing something supersedes the body’s need to rest. So, what do you do?

Consider who you follow online and the content you see. Instagram users spoke about the sense of relief and empowerment they felt after they had unfollowed certain accounts. Being more selective about who they chose to follow allowed them to find encouragement to get active, without weight-loss being the ultimate goal:

Jess: I sat there and realised every single picture I see is of these really lean women. That’s why I did my big clear out and unfollow, it wasn’t making me happy anymore.

Meanwhile, the message coming from those in the fitness industry is simple: ‘just do your best’. Your exercise routine may change in this second lockdown period, but you can still use movement as a way to decompress and stay active to support your physical and mental wellbeing.

All names have been pseudonymised.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ