Lawrence Judd

Before you get into this study review, I thought it might be worth me just gently poking you in the direction of this podcast I recorded the other month – in it, I chat to two Fitspiration researchers about their research and it helps ’round out’ the subject when coupled with this review. 

Enjoy!

The study being reviewed:
“Strong beats skinny every time”: Disordered eating and compulsive exercise in women who post fitspiration on Instagram
Authors: Grace Holland BPsych (Hons), MPsych(Clin), Marika Tiggemann BA, PhD
Journal: International Journal of Eating Disorders, Volume 50, Issue 1, January 2017 Pages 76–79

The TL;DR Version

Just over 200 women participated in the study, half of whom regularly posted “Fitspiration” type images on Instagram (the other half regularly posted “Travel” images). Participants completed the Eating Disorder Inventory, which measures a number of psychosocial traits associated with Eating Disorders (ED). In this study, the Drive for Thinness, Bulimia and Body Dissatisfaction subscales of the EDI were used. Participants were also assessed for Drive for Muscularity – the authors adapted the Drive for Thinness scale to “focus on muscularity rather than thinness” – and Compulsive Exercise, which was assessed using another questionnaire.

In short, the researchers assessed how much these women wanted to be thin, whether they felt the need to binge and then purge, how dissatisfied they were with their own body, how muscular they wanted to become and how guilty they felt if they missed an exercise session.

The women who posted Fitspiration regularly scored significantly higher on all fronts than the other group, and 17.5% of the group were “at risk for diagnosis of a clinical eating disorder”. Just 4.3% of the Travel group were at risk. These numbers are likely to be lower than the actual number, due to the fact that questionnaires were used and that the researchers could only access public Instagram profiles – actual ED sufferers posting Fitspiration may choose to keep their profiles private.

The Methodology

What Questions Did The Researchers Want To Answer?

  • How do women who post Fitspiration pictures on Instagram score on 3 subscales of the Eating Disorder Inventory compared to a control group posting other images?
  • How does a drive for compulsive exercise correlate with disordered eating in both groups?

The Subjects

  • A total of 203 women participated in the study – 101 in the Fitspiration group and 102 in the control group, who posted Travel images.
  • Subjects were found via searching for #Fitspiration or #Travel hashtags, and were included if they were female, had posted on Instagram in the past month, and had posted at least 10 #Fitspiration or #Travel images.
  • They were contacted via an Instagram comment on a relevant picture asking them to participate in the study, with a link to the questionnaires.
  • 14.4% of the eligible women who were posting #Fitspiration images participated in the study, and 20.4% of the eligible women posting Travel images took part.
  • The Fitspiration group were 26 years old on average, and the Travel group were 30 years old on average. Their BMI was similar, at 23-24 for both groups.

The Study Procedure

  • The scores for Drive for Thinness, Bulimia and Body Dissatisfaction sub scales were combined to give a total EDI score.
  • Cutoffs on the data given by the originator of the EDI were used to assess whether subjects were at risk of ED or not.
  • Drive for Muscularity was also assessed, as was Compulsive Exercise – this assesses how someone feels if they miss a training session, as opposed to how frequently someone exercises.
  • Compulsive Exercise scores were also correlated with the other scores, in order to assess whether these women fit with the previously discovered relationship between Compulsive Exercise and disordered eating in other studies.

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The Results

Table 1 below shows how each group scored on each scale – what matters with this is comparing the two groups, vs. the absolute score for each group.

The alpha scores indicate internal reliability – how well the test is capable of producing consistent results in consistent conditions. This isn’t the same as validity – if my measuring scales aren’t calibrated correctly, it’s still likely that the same object will give the same reading if I measure it over and over again. However, it doesn’t mean that the object actually weighs what it says on the scales. All of the tests have internal reliability scores of around 0.9, which is considered excellent.

On every measure apart from Body Dissatisfaction, the Fitspiration group scored significantly higher. If the test has a superscript ‘a’ or ‘b’ next to the effect size, that denotes that it was significantly different.

Table 2 shows the correlations between Compulsive Exercise and the disordered eating scores. Correlations are measured between -1 and 1, with -1 being a significant negative correlation and 1 being a significant positive correlation. All of the groups showed significant correlations, but the Fitspiration group showed significantly greater correlations for the 3 EDI sub scales – the larger “Fisher z” values show this.

This essentially means that women posting Fitspiration are far more likely to indulge in both disordered eating and compulsive exercise, which is a cocktail of negativity.

Practical Take Home Points

Fitspiration is beginning to look like a pretty terrible thing, generally speaking. Regular posting of Fitspiration-type pictures on Instagram may well be an indication that somebody suffers from some form of either emotional distress due to compulsive exercise or disordered eating patterns.

Does This Update or Change What We Already Know?

Given the small sample size and potential selection bias (only certain individuals were able to be selected), this isn’t necessarily a representative sample of female Instagram users. However, this is the first study to quantitively assess the characteristics of women who post Fitspiration images on Instagram; pilot studies are always very valuable. It also adds to the emerging body of evidence surrounding social media and body image.