This kind of content is rife on social media, but what’s the impact?

If you’ve ever taken a peek into the world of online fitness content, you’ve almost certainly come across ‘before and after’ body transformation pictures and videos. They could be there to sell you a fitness program, a diet supplement, or simply be a record of someone’s experience. But, despite their commonality, a new study from ASICS has uncovered the impact that this kind of content is having on our mental health.

In their survey, 48% of respondents reported feeling insecure about their bodies after seeing exercise transformation pictures. A staggering 82% of women surveyed (and 73% of Brits overall) believe that society’s obsession with the perfect body is damaging our mental health, and 80% say that they go on to feel unmotivated to exercise after seeing transformation imagery – a sentiment that is at odds with the ‘inspirational’ tone this content often adopts.

Supported by a host of celebrities, including Dr Alex George, Jada Sezer, and Motsi Mabuse, ASICS has launched a campaign to disrupt the ‘before and after’ format, and shift the focus to the ways that exercise can transform our mental health.

Following a roundtable discussion, in a series of images, the celebrities are pictured before and after doing 15 minutes and nine seconds of exercise – the length of time it takes to feel the benefit of exercise on our minds. Predictably, there is no dramatic transformation in their bodies, with the goal of the series to illustrate the ‘hidden’ benefits of an active lifestyle.

“I have been on a real journey with exercise and the reasons why I do it. When I was younger, I really used exercise as a weapon, to try and look thin, to look a certain way,” says Dr Alex George. “When I went on Love Island a few years later, I was over-training, and it wasn’t good for my mental health. Now, I’ve changed the way I view exercise and it’s really helped my mental health. I move for my mind, rather than to look a certain way.”

In a move taken following the research, ASICS EMEA has committed to not posting exercise transformation images on its social media channels, with the support of the ASICS Front Runner community, who will only share images that reflect the powerful mental and emotional impact of exercise.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at the charity Mind, echoes the importance of adopting a new approach to exercise: “Mind is a firm believer in the power of movement, however small, to support better mental health,” she says.

“Our aim is to support more people to get active to help them to thrive. Our own research shows that many people are put off exercising because they feel self-conscious. The more we can do to remove the barriers to people enjoying the benefits of exercise, the better.”

Dr Alex George

Dr Alex George. Photography | Sophie Harris-Taylor

Although this content can be difficult to avoid on social media, there are some steps that you can take to lessen the impact. For one, take some time to consider how it affects you. Do you experience a similar drop in motivation following coming across a transformation post? Does it fuel ‘gymtimidation’, imposter syndrome, or make you feel self-conscious? If the answer is yes to any of those feelings, then it’s a sign that you might need to switch things up.

You can, of course, unfollow accounts that post this kind of content. Or, if you know the poster personally and you don’t want to unfollow them completely, you can ‘mute’ them, so that their posts won’t unexpectedly come up on your feed, and you can still check in on them when you wish.

If you find that your Instagram ‘explore’ page is feeding you body transformations, try to train the algorithm to deliver you things you actually want to see. Firstly, if you see a post that you don’t want coming up, tap on it, then tap the three dots in the top corner, and tap ‘not interested’. Additionally, when you see things that you do really enjoy, and want to see on your feed, interacting with the post (‘liking’ it, or saving it) will let the algorithm know that that kind of thing works for you, and it will do its best to make sure you see more of the same.

You can also try following more people who share positive and uplifting content around bodies and fitness. But, at the end of the day, it’s OK to take a break altogether. Fitness and exercise should be fun and fulfilling. So if online content is dulling that, put it to one side, and immerse yourself fully in the joys of movement.

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