Online ‘gym bro’ media encourages unhealthy workout habits, body image issues
As gym enthusiasts use social media to share progress photos and workout inspiration, they risk promoting aesthetically-motivated exercise habits that promote body image issues and unhealthy exercise practices.
Consuming content from people who have impressive physiques can motivate others to hit the gym. However, this kind of visual first gym content sets unrealistic expectations for an aspirational body and can convince consumers that they too can achieve their fitness goals if they eat a certain way, lift a certain amount or do specific exercises.
Sulay Tariq, a second-year computer science and business administration combined major, said seeing fitness content on social media played a big role in motivating him to go to the gym. Tariq said he’s often excited to try a new workout he sees online, and he’ll feel inspired to hit the gym after watching a “hype” video.
“Aesthetics and power, that’s the only reason why I’m going [to the gym],” Tariq said.
Aidan Gilchrist starts leg day at the International Village gym. They squatted a board on the Smith machine. (Colette Pollauf)
David Kau, the head personal trainer at Marino Recreation Center, has seen students like Tariq go through the on-campus gym.
“Whatever people’s goals are, there will always be some extreme that is posted online,” Kau said. “Everyone is built differently for a reason. Your body is good at doing certain things and bad at doing other things. Sometimes you just can’t change it.”
Kau said he noticed a common misconception that you have to look a certain way to be considered fit. Whether someone is striving to get toned or have bigger muscles, they can find online content that represents those fitness goals.
Rachel Rodgers, an applied psychology professor at Northeastern, has conducted research showing that individuals exposed to social media content that promotes appearance-based ideals can lead to a perception that people who look a certain way are more attractive and valuable is.
“People who are exposed to that type of content tend to show more body image concerns and tend to report engaging in more disordered behavior,” Rodgers said. “This includes excessive exercise as well as disordered eating.”
The authenticity of this kind of gym content is also of concern to researchers like Rodgers. A survey by Truepic, a photo and video verification platform, found that 64% of American adults surveyed had edited photos of themselves before posting them on social media.
“Most people don’t look like they do in the media,” Rodgers said. “These photos are accompanied by messages that reinforce this idea that the look you’re seeing is really valuable. If you don’t have that type of body, then you don’t have the same social capital.”
Aidan Gilchrist sees Nick Gallina at the Marino Recreation Centre. Marino is the most popular place for Northeastern students to practice. (Colette Pollauf)
Gym-goers don’t always engage in this toxic cycle of comparison and disordered body image. For example, embodied exercise or joyful movement is when individuals engage in bodily movement that boosts endorphins and relieves stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are also real ways that consistent exercise can improve physical and mental health, according to the CDC.
“There are so many benefits of exercise that go beyond looking good, whether it’s improving your cardiovascular health or your bone health,” Kau said. “Having muscle mass on your body is an important thing and building some functional strength for the sake of staying healthy is, I think, highly underrated in the fitness community.”
Regardless, Rodgers said there’s no way to know exactly what long-term effects media consumption will have on younger generations.
“In the short term, we know that it erodes body image and that it increases negative feelings about yourself and the things you do,” she said. “It collects everything [over time].”