Young women’s pursuit of the muscly-but-not-too-muscly body spruiked by fitness influencers could be as unhealthy as the desire to be stick-thin.
Young women’s pursuit of the muscly-but-not-too-muscly body spruiked by fitness influencers could be as unhealthy as the desire to be stick-thin.

The fitness trend that does more harm than good

Beware the wolf in Nike.

It looks healthy, but for a growing number of young women being fit and 'ripped' is anything but.

As gyms gear up to reopen on June 22, groundbreaking psychological research reveals the desire by young women to be strong, muscled and athletic-looking could be as unhealthy as an ambition to be stick thin.

The mission to be perfectly-toned was often accompanied by similarly rigid and restricted eating regimes - and levels of body dissatisfaction - as young women with anorexia, a new Australian study has found.

And for gym junkies, there was the added component of spending hours every day exercising, to achieve the trending, slim and "muscly-but-not-too-muscly" body type idealised by fitness influencers, lead researcher Mitchell Cunningham said.

"Some researchers are referring to it as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

"Now we've got … thinness and muscularity, which are two components hard to achieve in their own rights, combined into this monster type of a body ideal," he said.

"It's disguised as a healthy, trophy sort of lifestyle but to get that body is as unattainable for most women as a hugely muscular physique is for most guys (and) it is precipitating the obsessive and unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours … which we're starting to see now.

Australian fitspo influencer Kayla Itsines inspires young women to become fit and toned but achieving her “ripped” physique may come at a psychological cost. Source: Supplied
Australian fitspo influencer Kayla Itsines inspires young women to become fit and toned but achieving her “ripped” physique may come at a psychological cost. Source: Supplied

 

Many young women aspiring to be muscular were showing concerning eating disorder symptoms and other psychological problems, Mr Cunningham said.

"So whether women want to be as thin as possible, or want athletic, perfectly toned muscularity - that's represented as much healthier on social media - it can still be unhealthy," he said.

Psychology researchers were just starting to scratch the surface in understanding the impact of fitness and lifestyle Instagram influencers on young women's self-esteem and eating habits, Mr Cunningham said.

Smiling, 'ripped' YouTube and Instagram fitness influencers like Chloe Ting and Australia's Sarah Stevenson (Sarah's Day) and Kayla Itsines have millions of devoted, young female followers.

"I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg right now," Mr Cunningham said.

Chloe Ting, an international fitspo influencer with scores of followers.
Chloe Ting, an international fitspo influencer with scores of followers.

"Social media is coming up (as a culprit) again and again. With the rise of this female muscular ideal we've seen, in parallel, the rapid popularity and proliferation of fitspiration."

The research by the universities of Melbourne and Sydney, in collaboration with Harvard - informally labelled 'Bigger, Skinnier, Ripped, Jacked, Toned' - found young women who struggled to achieve the ideal physique, could experience negative emotions and distress, which left them feeling unhappy rather than healthy and fulfilled.

mandy.squires@news.com.au

Originally published as How 'fitspo' trend does more harm than good