The hidden dark side of running a fitness-themed Instagram account

When Tom Jenane, 31, made a fitness account on Instagram back in 2018, it seemed like a natural move.

He’s always been into fitness, from being a personal trainer up until four years ago to now being the nutrition/fitness expert for Nature’s Health Box.

Tom wanted to share his knowledge, and by posting exercise tutorials, workout guides and ‘what I eat in a day’ posts, he ended up regularly spending two hours a day on the account.

Tom’s account was one of many. Alongside the influencers boasting hundreds of thousands of followers, Instagram has become a home for fitness content from people all over the world.

Under the hashtag #fitnessjourney, there are currently over 26.5 million posts showcasing the likes of posed gym selfies in matching activewear sets, ‘before and after’ comparisons and videos of workouts to try.

And with the arrival of 2021 and the yearly ‘new year new me’ hype, there is no shortage of social media fitness challenges pasted across the internet, promising to help you ‘start the new year right’.

Owning an fitness account on social media has been lauded as a way to stay motivated, interact with others in the fitness community and track your progress.

But Tom found that fitness content can become a dangerous tightrope for those creating it.

While he says that being in the fitness industry meant he already scrutinised himself, social media exacerbated a fixation with his body.

‘When training people, you focus on others,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But when posting constant images on social media, you look at yourself and you focus on every little detail.’

Tom would regularly post up to eight ‘stories’ daily, but creating content on Instagram made him obsessed with every aspect of his body.

‘I wanted bigger shoulders, a broader chest, slimmer abs, V-taper,’ he says. ‘It’s also the constant pressure to come out with amazing content.

‘You would spend 20 minutes just trying to get the right shot for a few likes.’

Sometimes Tom would shoot a workout video and hate how he looked after watching it back, and end up re-taking it multiple times until he became exhausted.

Research over the years has shown that consuming fitness content can have a negative effect on your mental health. One study found that exposure to fitness-related content on social media is linked to an increased concern with weight. And scientists at University College London found that higher Instagram usage was linked to an increased risk of developing orthorexia, especially for those following ‘healthy eating’ influencers.

Although Tom is still firmly in the world of fitness, he went cold-turkey on social media after realising how much it was negatively affecting his life. ‘The moment I stopped with the images, I relaxed about how I appeared,’ he says.

Creating fitness accounts can be especially damaging for those with a history of disordered eating. Aspokesperson for charity Beat tells us: ‘Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with complex causes, so creating a fitness Instagram would not be the sole and direct reason for someone developing one.

‘However, many people with eating disorders count calories or track weight loss to the point of obsession, and anything that encourages this can facilitate or exacerbate such behaviours and make recovery harder.’

While Alessia, a 24-year-old admin assistant, stresses she has never suffered from an eating disorder, she does have body dysmorphia.

She set up a health and fitness Instagram during the first lockdown in March after signing up for a fitness challenge. ‘I figured it would be good to track progress meet like-minded people and also to share some recipes I try out,’ she says.

Her feed quickly became a collage of progress photos, colourful recipes and workout selfies.

While being part of the fitness community on Instagram improved her self-esteem in some ways, through following non-influencers and people she could relate to, it also had a negative impact.

‘When I was doing the fitness challenge, I was spending a lot of time on the account – posting photos, stories etc,’ she says. ‘I was comparing myself, my body and my fitness journey to other people or worrying about how much engagement my content was getting.’

Instead of completely deleting the account, Alessia reframed her approach.

She tells us: ‘I definitely spend a lot less time on it now, posting once or twice a week and taking time off as and when I want.

‘I came to realise I have no interest in being an influencer of any sort, nor am I qualified to give any workout suggestions, so I’ve stuck to sharing recipes and tracking my journey.’

For those thinking of creating an account for their fitness, Alessia has some advice.

‘If you are going to do this, try and do this for yourself and yourself only. Don’t worry about what others might think,’ she says. ‘It will do more damage to yourself in the long run if you change the way you work out or eat just because you feel it ‘should’ look a particular way.’

And when it comes to navigating fitness content online, whether you’re posting or consuming it, Beat advises: ‘As January approaches, the constant narrative around weight loss and ‘improvement’ can often feel overwhelming for those affected.

‘We would encourage anyone struggling to report harmful content wherever possible, but also consider taking a step away and instead focusing on other positive sources of support like Beat.’

BEAT

If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment

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