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Ditching Gains for Mental Health

A recent study by Associate Professor Kathryn Bruchmann and Associate Professor Chan Thai shows that gym culture on social media might be turning optimism into obsession for people with growth mindsets.
June 5, 2023
By Angela Solorzano
Illustration of distressed person with device screens with fitness images swirling around them.
| Illustration by Tu Tran

In February 2021, Instagram rolled out a feature aimed at improving the mental health of its community. When a user searched for certain exercise or diet hashtags, rather than just getting videos of chiseled physiques and diet tips, they were redirected to educational resources about eating disorders.

The intervention was modest, consisting mostly of information from the National Eating Disorders Association, but the implication was clear: Instagram had a body image problem. 

And they weren’t alone. Later that year, social media apps like TikTok, Facebook, and Pinterest launched similar features, all aimed at lowering the emphasis on looks and likes.

Despite these efforts, it’s hard to see much progress two years later. Fitness accounts are more popular than ever and social media is still a big driver of body image problems—and not just for people struggling to lose weight.

In fact, research shows that certain people who are in good physical shape might be the most vulnerable to inspirational fitness content on social media. The common denominator? Having a growth mindset. 

A recent study by Associate Professor Chan Thai in communication and Associate Professor Kathryn Bruchmann in psychology examined the impact of implicit theories of body shape (having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset about being able to change your body shape) on body image negativity. The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, showed that people with low BMI and a growth mindset were more likely to experience negative body image than any other group.

SCU Assistant Professor of Communication Chan Thai. Photo by Chuck Barry.

Chan Thai

Traditionally, growth mindsets are associated with good outcomes in education and health. People with growth mindsets—or the belief that people can change or improve—don’t view their present circumstances as permanent conditions. For example, being bad at math isn’t a personality type but something that can be improved with the proper steps. If you have a fixed mindset, you think that certain people just have inherent strengths and weaknesses that can’t be changed. 

Over the last 10 years, researchers have found this logic holds true to health outcomes, too. People with growth mindsets are less likely to start smoking, more likely to quit if they do start, and are more successful in losing weight when they try. In fact, doctors have started using this as an early intervention strategy to promote good health practices. 

“We’ve seen over and over again that if a person has a growth mindset, they’re more resilient,” Thai says. “Even if they fail, they’ll keep trying because they truly believe that this is a skill that they can develop.”

But in this study, while people with high BMI exhibited the optimistic outlook traditionally associated with a growth mindset and more frequently maintained a positive body image, those with low BMI saw their growth mindset manifest as obsessive habits. Rather than finding satisfaction with their current health, people with growth mindsets fixated on the goal of continued progress, resulting in negative body image, which can lead to lots of unhealthy habits. 

“Body image is associated with all different kinds of outcomes like depression and anxiety,” Bruchmann says. “It can also be a predictor for any kind of eating disorder, or disordered eating, which includes behaviors like binging, frequent dieting, and excessive exercising.”

So why is this traditionally healthier mindset producing negative outcomes for more physically fit people? While their recent study didn’t examine causes, Bruchmann and Thai had some theories based on what we do know about people with growth mindsets. 

Much of Bruchmann’s psychological research centers around social comparison. Humans are social creatures, so it’s natural for them to assess how they’re doing by monitoring the progress of others. This holds true for exercise as well.

Kathryn Bruchmann standing under awning near Mission Gardens

Kathryn Bruchmann

“It's this idea of, ‘Well, if I could look like that person, then why don’t I?’” Bruchmann says. “So they start to feel more shame and exhibit more body surveillance—constantly paying attention to their bodies and their appearance a lot more.”

When social media is the means of monitoring, the images people see as social comparisons are not just extreme outliers in terms of performance, but, thanks to filters and camera angles, they might not even be real.

“People see these fitness accounts every day and the target of an ideal body is constantly moving,” Thai says. “If I have a growth mindset and my body doesn’t match what I see, that makes me feel like I need to spend more time exercising beyond what’s healthy.”

The results from their study inspired Bruchmann and Thai to begin a second study that more closely examines social media’s role on people with growth mindsets. They hope to publish their findings later this year.

In the meantime, Bruchmann says there is plenty to learn from the study from both a health treatment and personal standpoint. 

While a growth mindset can be valuable in many instances, it might not be the silver bullet it once seemed. Bruchmann says their findings should give health practitioners pause when viewing growth mindsets as a one-size-fits-all treatment tool. 

“I think this is a bit of a cautionary tale,” Bruchmann says. “You have to be careful because growth mindsets are not universally good. There are some people that could actually be harmed with this approach.”

For the average person who finds themselves swiping through fitness content frequently, Thai suggests they adjust how they engage with social media. Opting out might not be an option for everyone, but finding a better balance between what social media is telling us and what our bodies are telling us can lead to healthier outcomes. 

For example, Thai says, if you feel hungry, you should eat. If your body is tired, skipping a workout is not just okay, but probably what’s best for your body. 

“When you’re in college, it’s easy to get caught up in this hustle culture—I should do this. Tomorrow I should wake up at 7 a.m. and go for a jog. But do I want to?” Thai asks. “I think if we all took a little bit more time to challenge what those ‘shoulds’ are, we’d be a lot more in tune with our bodies.”