"Sweat Isn't Fat 'Crying,' Khloé:" Why This RD Can't Stand #Fitspo

Regularly feeling stigmatized about your weight isn't healthy, and neither is the #fitspo hashtag, says registered dietitian Abby Langer

#Fitspo study: a woman in fitness gear stands at the base of a flight of steps, preparing to work out.

(Photo: iStock)

If you have an Instagram account, chances are you’ve run into the #fitspo hashtag. It’s been used on more than 43 million posts (and counting)—most of which highlight “inspirational” bodies and food.

Fitspo is meant to motivate people to be their very best—to eat clean, train hard and get fit fast. While some might find photo after photo of “perfect” bodies inspiring, to me #fitspo culture is actually the opposite. It’s not inspiring. It’s judgy—and honestly, in my opinion, it can be dangerous.

Before you start hating on me, it’s important to note that I don’t take issue with people working hard to achieve their fitness and nutrition goals. I’m not jealous of super-fit and healthy people, either. I’m a registered dietitian and I train hard and eat healthy, too, but there’s something about #fitspo that sends up a big red flag for me.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Images tagged with #fitspo are supposed to promote health, but a recent study shows that what they actually emphasize is attractiveness.

That’s mostly because of pervasive messages that get thrown around with imagery of often impossibly-thin people. “No Pain No Gain” is a popular caption, as is “Losing Weight Is a Mental Challenge, Not a Physical One” (oh, brother), and the godawful “No Ifs, Ands, Or Jiggly Butts” (I love a pun as much as the next person, but really?!). There’s this idea that if you aren’t able to post similar photos, you must be weak. Like this photo right here:

Or this #fitspo featuring a client’s progress. For the record, I didn’t think she looked unhealthy to begin with, but this post makes it seem like her before shots were a problem.

Client Progress – I want to show another one of my clients who completely transformed her mind and physique during her time working with me. Renee not only lost body fat but also has the defined physique she was wanting. Renee’s progress is proof of what happens when you commit to the process and follow through with 100% effort. – Hearing her say “It’s liberating that I never have to be uncomfortable in my own skin again” is the most gratifying part of my job. Nothing makes me happier than working 1 on 1 with clients and helping them succeed. – Yes, I coach competition clients but I also coach lifestyle clients for transformations like this. If you’re looking to be confident and feel good for everyday life, I would love to create a plan to get the results you’re looking for. Email me to get started on your best self!

A post shared by SHAUNNA MARIE (@xxshaunnamarie) on

Sure, I can see how some people could be motivated by these images and messages, but what irks me is the idea of shaming and/or bullying people into make lifestyle changes. Because while that might initially work, it’s probably not going to be sustainable.

Feeling sore and sorry are two very different things, despite what the meme above suggest. And it’s this idea of the all-or-nothing approach that’s really problematic. Turning exercise and diet into a win-lose situation, as #fitspo so frequently does, implies that you’re either energetic or lazy, fit or fat, eating clean or dirty—and that, in my opinion, is an extremely destructive way to perceive health. Sweat isn’t fat “crying,” Khloé, nor should we think about exercise in that way. Health and fitness should be attainable for all people in their own way. I wish we could celebrate it like that.

Sweat is fat crying!! Yes!!!!!

A post shared by Khloé (@khloekardashian) on

What’s even crazier is that idea that elevating rock-hard #morningabs and other #fitspo goals can actually make us GAIN weight. Another study of nearly 3,000 people took a hard look at weight discrimination and discovered that shaming people into losing weight actually backfires. According to the findings, people who experienced weight stigma are more likely to feel psychological distress and engage in “obesity-promoting behaviours” like “problematic eating, refusal to diet and avoidance of physical activity.” They’re also likely to weigh, on average, about 3.6 pounds more than people who haven’t experienced negative comments. So yeah, I mean it when I say I don’t think #fitspo is your friend.

Impossible images are one thing, but I also dislike the #fitspo ideal that there are no viable excuses for missing a workout. Some excuses are real: many people face barriers to getting out to the gym—and they’re not B.S. reasons, as #fitspo would have you believe. People who have the means and lifestyle to “Eat clean and train dirty” (another popular #Fitspo mantra) are lucky, but a vast number of us aren’t that privileged. Why lord that over us as though we’re inferior?

Like this post, “I am my limitation”? What about my job, my kids, my finances, my actual LIFE. Sometimes those IRL things can and do get in the way. That doesn’t make me a bad or weak person. 

#fitspo can also be extremely triggering for those with body image issues or a history/tendencies towards eating disorders—and another recent study found that even scrolling through #fitspo posts can have a negative effect on mood and body satisfaction.

For that very reason, the similarities between #fitspo and its parent hashtag, #thinspo, are chilling.

Apparently #fitspo grew from a backlash to the pro-thin (and frequently pro-eating disorder) #thinspo, but there is no shortage of studies, like this one, which suggests that they’re still very similar.

A post shared by Jeremiah Carr (@jcarrlive) on

Although #fitspo claims that it promotes health instead of thinness, it still seems to promote a body structure that is unrealistic and unattainable for many people (especially people who have, you know, lives). I suspect that a lot of #fitspo posts involve weight cutting (a method of fast weight loss practiced of people in sporting competitions, usually to qualify for lower weight class groups), Photoshop and fitness models who are definitely not the norm in terms of body type.

What #fitspo doesn’t tell us is how many hours upon hours these people have spent in the gym, how they’ve restricted their food, and what their lives have really been like trying to achieve and maintain this body type.

Plus, we definitely don’t see how long those perfect abs last. Because trust me, you may wake up with #morningabs (another popular #Fitspo tag), but as soon as you drink water or eat breakfast, they start to fade, and that’s completely normal. No one looks like their #morningabs photo all day long.

Bottom line: when #fitspo posts encourage #noexcuses and #nopainnogain—a.k.a. hurting yourself to attain unsustainable and/or achievable goals—it’s not inspirational. I’d much rather see us getting out there and finding pleasure in being active and eating as well as we can. That might not make for a popular post, but it’s one I’d like and share.

We Asked an RD About the Gwyneth Paltrow Supplements: “I Can’t Even”
Going Gluten-Free Just to “Eat Clean” Could Hurt Your Heart
10 Things Your Blemishes Are Trying to Tell You About Your Health