Fitness Advertising; Naughty or Nice?

The fitness industry often campaigns ads that meet “fitspo” criteria; images of women who are extremely thin, usually in just their underwear or sports bra, alongside a caption that is supposed to motivate consumers to work harder to achieve the same “ideal.”

Although there are many studies which suggest that women feel deflated by images like these, they must manage to entice them, right? Otherwise, companies wouldn’t be using sexy advertising images to their advantage. To test this assumption firsthand, I conducted a “social experiment” in digital advertising by placing one empowering image and one sexy image on a popular women’s fitness site. I couldn’t believe the shocking results!

fitness ads

The images above are the ones I used to test women’s engagement (i.e. click-through) with the ads. I had a feeling the traffic would be a little higher for the image on the right, but when it was 243% higher, I was dumbfounded. I thought certainly the image on the right might be provocative to men, but to women too? Did it allure them because of intrigue/curiosity, desire to look attractive, disgust, or what? I can’t say that I will ever have the full answers.

With all the attention the underwear ad gained over the image of a woman looking strong, it made me step back and contemplate my strategy for reaching a wider blog audience. Man, it was tempting to think about turning up the heat and plastering intriguing images left and right on the web, but I knew that in the end, that’s not the brand image I want to represent. I don’t want to get attention by falling in line with the thousands of other fitness professionals who post pictures of their midriffs to Instagram. No, I want to hold a higher, more professional, and classy standard. Here’s why…

There are a lot of women like Sheena Lyonnais, a woman who was 26 years old and trying to get in shape for her upcoming birthday. She started looking for inspiration on Tumblr and, of course, found herself fixating on “fitspo” or “fitspiration” images. She had good intentions for herself, but when you’re caught up in comparing your body to others, it’s sure to be a slippery slope.

Check out the #fitspo images (below) that I recently found on Twitter. You can see how the line between inspiring and unhealthy/dangerous can get hazy with some of these images.

controversial fitspo 2


It wasn’t too long before Sheena, who had the best of intentions at the outset, found herself relying emotionally on running and would eat only 1,000 calories a day. She admits that she wasn’t at the point of a full-blown eating disorder, but that she was on a precarious and unhealthy path. Just one bit of proof that exercising more and eating less does not always lead to success, health or happiness.

I understand where Sheena is coming from in her struggles. I had a similar experience when I was first formally learning about fitness and nutrition in undergrad at The University of Virginia. I became so particular about trying to do things a certain way with exercise and food, to be as “perfect” at it as possible, and wound up becoming somewhat malnourished during training for a marathon. I became severely ill towards the end of my training. It took a few weeks for me to fully recover after the marathon since my immune system had been trashed.

It’s this sensitive situation between disorder and health that a lot of women find themselves in – struggling to maintain control over their lifestyles while constantly coming across images like this tweet (below). Oy. “Marry” your workouts?!

controversial fitspo

There are plenty of women out there who find these images inspiring and they push harder because of them; however, the majority of women feel judged and ashamed as a result of them. It’s not okay to shake a finger at someone over not having rock hard abs, just as it’s not cool to “fit shame” and assume that because someone is extremely healthy looking that they are doing something extreme.

It’s really a personal decision. It’s YOUR decision whether or not you buy into this fitspo and sexy advertising/marketing. I won’t judge you either way! What’s important to realize is how the images impact you, and only you, emotionally. If they feel suffocating then by all means, stop the vicious cycle. Unfollow people on social media and avoid websites that you know make you feel less than worthy. You’re never going to reach a place of being healthy and happy with low confidence. Build that up first, perhaps even while hitting the gym here and there, and the rest will fall in line.

On the flipside, if you don’t mind these images then go for it, but proceed with caution. You never know when a good thing can become a bad thing.

Yours in health and wellness,


wellnesswinz logo 2



Leave a Reply