By : Allie Edmonds
I downloaded TikTok to distract myself from my loneliness. Intended purely as a form of entertainment during months of uncertainty in 2020, I could not have predicted the profound negative effects the app could have on society. Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, when I began scrolling and liking videos on TikTok’s ‘For You’ page, the app’s infamous algorithm seemed to know exactly what might grab my attention. A never-ending spiral of content, TikTok caters exactly to what its viewers want. Like most social media platforms, TikTok dominates in the areas of fitness, nutrition, and wellness advice. With over 111 billion views, the ‘fitness’ hashtag includes thousands of videos of home workouts, diet advice, and ‘quick fixes,’ all promising unequivocally unrealistic results. Plus, the 15-30 second video limit is barely long enough for even the most qualified expert to offer thorough advice. “The emerging new media TikTok has a significant impact on the value judgment system that guides people, causing serious social problems,” Jian Liu highlights in a paper regarding TikTok’s influence on body image. On a platform where anything catchy can go viral, it is easy for users to fall for false promises. Unfortunately, fitness-related Tiktoks tend to be dangerous because they are not often created with the viewer’s best interest in mind, but instead prioritize gaining as many views as possible to make a profit.
Not only do TikTok fitness trends often encourage unhealthy routines, but they can also promote unattainable body standards . According to CNBC, Tiktok just reached around 1 billion monthly users this past September. The culture and structure of the social media platform encourages users to imitate others and participate in viral trends. A 2014 study at the Park Nicollet Melrose Center revealed that girls who regularly use social media are six times more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors (Gallivan). The eating disorder treatment center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota wanted to show how social media has caused widespread body anxiety that can cause health problems for the public
When looking at health trends on social media, there are several red flags to consider. Any video that offers dramatic results within a short time frame coincides with the potential for harmful long-term effects. Many Tiktok fitness trends also promote the importance of following a strict fitness routine for a certain period of time in order to achieve results. The fitness influencers who create these repetitive challenges, are not only incentivized by increasing viewership but rarely consider the importance of listening to your body or remembering to rest. When we force ourselves to copy the exact fitness or wellness routine of an ‘influencer’—a social media personality who only publicizes a highlight reel of the good days to boost his or her follower base—we forget that one of the most important aspects of overall health is being in tune with needs of our own body and mind.
As I reflect on my unhealthy relationship with exercise that consumed my high school years and first few months of college, I increasingly understand that the only way to maintain a healthy fitness routine is to find a form of exercise that—and I know it sounds cheesy—actually brings you joy. When I arrived at UVA just over a year ago I had a completely different outlook on fitness and the benefits of exercise. Whether I was using exercise to avoid the stress and uncertainty of Covid or feelings of insecurity and anxiety at a new school making new friends, I am unsure, but during the first month of school I fell down a rabbit hole of misconceptions about fitness. Living in a dorm heavily restricted by Covid limitations at the time meant that exercise was a crucial outlet, allowing me to release pent-up energy. For a period of time exercise became a chore. I let fitness influencers on YouTube and TikTok convince me that lifting weights and doing HIIT workouts were the only way that I could look or feel my best. I hoped for impractical results as I forced myself to the university gym every day of the week. I did not think twice about the unsupported claims on social media I took as health advice, and I suffered as a consequence. I did not understand the exercises I was doing, and, most importantly, I did not enjoy them.
For years running had been my favorite pastime, yet I was convinced that I might finally achieve some sort of unrealistic goal if I kept forcing myself through these ‘miracle’ routines. I allowed a video with a one-minute time limit to dictate whether or not I was using fitness as an outlet for my overall health. I viewed exercise as a requirement to achieve certain aesthetic goals glorified by influencers and rewarded by social media attention. After a few weeks at school, I understood that if I was going to reap all the benefits of exercise, I would have to enjoy it—especially if I was going to survive those first few months of Covid restrictions. When I switched back to running and taking long walks outside, I finally felt the relief I so desperately needed during this stressful life transition and worsening pandemic. I did not need to set some unattainable standard based on a promise to lose a certain amount of pounds in a certain amount of days because some internet influencer with a few million ‘likes’ told me it was the ‘right’ way.
A year later, I can confidently say that I have achieved a healthy relationship with fitness. While potentially dangerous diets and workout routines still appear on my feed and photoshopped girls with ‘perfect’ bodies still cross my “Four You” page, I can remind myself that my outlook on fitness and well-being is far healthier than the flashy claims I once fell victim to. I value my exercise routine because it actually serves as a refreshing break during my day, not an additional stressor to an already chaotic college routine. As I observe other students my age, particularly my close friends, I have noticed that the girls who maintain a solid, healthy fitness routine in college are the girls who love what they do. Some girls in my apartment building preach the benefits of cycling multiple times a week because it brings them joy, my roommate takes walks every morning because she loves to listen to music, and I love to run because nothing else can clear my head to the extent that it does.
While social media and the fitness industry might try to convince you otherwise, fitness will never be a one-size fits all approach. When you scroll through TikTok, fitness influencers will attempt to convince you to buy their program or follow their account. In presenting to you claims that you will achieve a certain beauty standard, you must understand that these influencers, even if you do want to look and feel like a social media model, are omitting how there is more than one method to achieve your desired outcome. The only way that you can maintain fitness in the long term is if you, similarly, look at all aspects of your health in the long term. While trying new workouts is important and exciting, no “600 Calories in 60 Minutes” or “Weighted Hula Hoop” challenge—yes, these are real TikTok fitness challenges with a combined over 71 million views—is going to bring you happiness just because they promise weight loss and are backed by transformation photos of participants. While one TikTok user’s incredible results may be convincing on such an influential platform, no 60-second video should be enough to convince a viewer that they must act a certain way to achieve the benefits of movement for overall health.
Liu, Jiayan. (2021). The Influence of the Body Image Presented Through TikTok Trend-Videos and Its Possible Reasons. Advances in Social Science, Education, and Humanities Research, volume 559.
Bursztynsky, Jessica. (September 27, 2021). TikTok reaches 1 billion monthly users. CNBC. H.R. Gallivan. Presentation about teens, Social Media And Body Image, thousands of lives restored, Healing eating disorder. Park Nicollet MelroseCenter. 2014.