Fitness role models promote weight loss and muscle building

Too often, exercise videos on social media are about losing weight and body fat, and building muscle, says Christine Sundgot-Borgen, who has written a Ph.D. thesis on adolescents and their relationship to their own bodies.

“How to get abs in under 24 hours” and “Drink this to lose 15 kgs in 3 weeks.” These are examples of content that pops up in the video stream on TikTok.

In Norway, as many as one in three 13-14-year-olds watch exercise videos on social media (Children and Media, 2020). Among 15 to 16-year-olds, almost half of boys and girls watch this type of content.

“Those of us who research youth, exercise, and body image find that the way many people convey exercise is problematic. In principle, exercise should be fun, give a sense of mastery, and be social and health-promoting. Not everyone can convey this focus. Too often, exercise is about how the body should be changed in terms of appearance, loss of weight and body fat, and enhancement of muscle,” says Christine Sundgot-Borgen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Regional Section for Eating Disorders at Ullevål Hospital.

Photo: Christine Sundgot-Borgen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Regional Section for Eating Disorders (NIH)

Young people encounter this type of content not only on social media, but also through newspapers, TV shows, parents, and acquaintances who talk about exercise.

“This focus lays the foundation for what children and adolescents associate exercise with. It is not any wonder that the relationship with exercise sours and fades away, or that the training is no longer pleasurable, but becomes something young people “just have to do” to become good enough, instead of the fact that exercise can be a positive resource in everyday life both physically, mentally, and socially. We adults must help young people to opt-out of unhealthy training ideals. We should also consider ourselves – how we promote exercise among young people through our own attitudes, behaviors, and comments,” says Sundgot-Borgen.

Sundgot-Borgen wrote her Ph.D. on adolescents and their relationship to their own bodies in 2020, The Healthy Body Image Intervention: A school-based, cluster-randomized controlled trial in high school students.

Young people’s need to be seen and liked

Especially in adolescence, many have a need for recognition. This can lead to profiles on social media gaining a lot of power when they set guidelines for what kind of appearance is good enough.

“Young people are particularly vulnerable as they are in a period where the physical, social, and cognitive aspects are undergoing major development. Self-esteem may not be at its peak, and many feel a need to fit in and be seen and liked. They are therefore sensitive to social norms and looking for answers to how they should be in order to be perceived as “good enough.” They compare themselves to other, often idealized people or profiles who may be many years older and fully developed. In addition, they evaluate themselves against photos that might be edited. Thus, they compare themselves with completely unrealistic ideals,” says Sundgot-Borgen.

An exercise influencer can also influence young people to appear in a certain way. A form of: “Look like this, be liked by others even more.”

“Young people experience a special sense of belonging to young profiles as they recognize themselves in them, look up to them, and feel that the profile understands how they feel. This creates trust, and the information, attitudes, and advice that come from such a profile are more easily accepted as the truth, at least compared to a good adult who would have given the same advice. Depending on what the profiles stand for and promote in terms of attitudes and focus will have a positive or negative impact on the followers. Therefore, they have to choose carefully who to follow on social media,” Sundgot-Borgen points out.

Sales and unskilled training advice

In addition, the exercise advice given on social media may be given on the wrong basis. There are many who mix sales and marketing in their advice.

“Many of the profiles that young people follow promote products through their posts in a cunning way. The profiles tell a story about how a particular product has become a necessity in their everyday lives, as well as how they themselves use it and the effect it gives. This is then followed by a link to the sale and discount code. The profiles are sponsored with good deals to get young people to buy products that they don’t really need. A good example is the purchase of supplements in the hope of getting in shape and getting training results even faster. The vast majority of products have no effect and may in the worst cases contain illegal and harmful substances.

Social media gives everyone a platform to create content, including users who do not have the education or expertise in communicating with adolescents. It can potentially lead to the advice given being outright wrong and leading to inappropriate exercise.

“There is obviously a risk if unskilled supervisors provide expertise in something they lack expertise in. So, it is wise to search for a professional basis the profile has to give advice and tips. It can become a problem if unskilled advice and tips do not relate to training principles related to loading, progression, variation, and recovery. The focus on individual adaptation and focusing on the whole body often vanishes when the profiles have to reach out broadly to their followers, who can be anything from young girls to well-trained adults,” Sundgot-Borgen points out.

Focus on body function, not appearance

Sundgot-Borgen’s clear message is that there is a distinction between how educational or destructive exercise videos can be. Therefore, adolescents need guidance in choosing role models that are useful to them.

“Safe profiles talk about a wide range of positive benefits of exercise. It can be fun to experience that you get stronger or faster, and it can be exciting to try new forms of exercise. It can be nice to do a workout with others, that you get better sleep, and more energy in everyday life and get to your sport even better. Safe profiles do not talk about changing their appearance through exercise, like how to exercise to get bigger biceps, more v-shaped back, slimmer waist, firmer buttocks, bigger calorie burn, and so on,” Sundgot-Borgen points out.

She continues: «Good role models don’t talk about having work out to burn the calories they ate the day before, or that they had to have an extra hard session to be able to enjoy themselves on the weekend. In addition, they wear clothing that covers the chest and buttocks so that the exercise and technique come into focus, not the appearance of the body. They also do not tell how much they eat and how many grams there are of various nutrients in the food. They don’t talk about their own weight or body composition, nor about what an ideal weight or body shape is, and they don’t use slogans like “no pain no gain.”

Motivation for healthy exercise

Although some content can be problematic on social media, Sundgot-Borgen points out that there is also content that can motivate young people’s exercise habits.

“Videos on social media intended to provide advice, tips, and inspiration are very accessible information compared to other sources. Young people can effectively meet or observe other young people with similar interests, which can provide a sense of belonging, among other things. For many, seeing other people’s exercising methods will be inspiring and facilitate variation in their exercise routines if they follow profiles that show a wide range of forms of training and exercises. If there is anything desirable, it is that young people are motivated for health-promoting exercises,” says Sundgot-Borgen.

At the same time, it is important to be critical of the profile’s attitudes and messages regarding exercise, body, and food, as well as to what extent the profile informs about one’s own background and the basis for their advice.

“On the internet, it is open for anyone to publish content. Regardless of their professional background, attitudes, and intentions, everyone has an opportunity to spread information to their followers. Despite the positive opportunities that social media provides, there is a risk that young people will encounter profiles that are not the best role models or communicators of exercise,” says Sundgot-Borgen.

Sundgot-Borgen’s advice to young people:

  • Background: Reflect on the background of the person you choose to follow – do they have any professional basis for giving advice?
  • Focus and attitudes: Where is the focus of the profile? Exercise to change the appearance of the body? Are there a lot of scantily clad pictures? Do they promote themselves and sell products? Do they just post extreme exercise and eating regimens that do not feel good in your everyday life? Then they may not be people you should follow.
  • Is there anyone who makes you feel inspired to exercise and who, through new forms of training and exercises, makes the training feel like fun? Then these can be good sources.
  • Feel free to follow several profiles to increase the chance of variation in the forms of exercises in your everyday training.
  • Discuss the profiles with friends and family. What do you think of them? How do you feel when you follow them? Choose who you follow based on this assessment.
  • Keep up with the exercises that you think are fun and that give you joy in everyday life.
  • Feel free to make the training social – then it is often more fun to do it in the long run.

And her advice to parents:

  • Be curious about your child’s exercise habits, goals, and preferences. Be engaged.
  • Be curious about who the children exercise with and what attitudes they have within the training group.
  • Be curious about who your children follow on social media and talk about smart choices about who they follow.
  • Encourage different types of exercise and training environments.
  • Be aware of how you as an adult (parent, grandparent, teacher, coach) talk about exercise, food, and body. Your language, your attitudes, your opinions, your habits quickly get on to your child. Remember – they get most of it.

(Translated from Norwegian by Ratan Samadder)