Watching Workout Videos Could Be Psychologically Harmful, Study Finds

Beth Stebner
workout videos may be harmful

Photo: Getty Images

When it’s cold and gross outside and there may or may not be a foot of snow on the ground, the last thing you want to do is trudge to the gym. So, YouTubing a Pilates video or popping in an cardio-boosting DVD seems like the logical next best thing. You get your motivation fix in the comfort of your own home. And—bonus points—no one is judging you when you can’t master the “Destroyer of the Universe” pose. Not so fast.

A new study from Oregon State University found that watching exercise videos is linked to “psychological harm,” causing some viewers to develop negative body image and unrealistic expectations of their own bodies.

Researchers looked at 10 popular commercial exercise DVDs and found a frightening amount of demotivation masquerading as #fitspiration—as many as one in every seven go get ’em statements was actually loaded with negative language that gave participants unrealistic expectations.

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So-called “tough love” phrases like “you better be sweating” or “you should be dying right now” aren’t one-size-fits-all, lead researcher Brad Cardinal, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University, said in a news release. “There are a lot of exaggerated claims through the imagery and language of ‘do this and you’ll look like me.’”

And what’s worse—if you feel like the instructor is yelling at you, you might push yourself beyond your limit and get seriously injured, probably not what they meant when they were talking about killer abs.

Cardinal said that while the home fitness industry is a booming business with around $250 million in sales, there’s still precious little research about the effects or safety of the motivational phrases used in these videos.

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He cautions that users should be aware that just because the fitness instructor on a DVD looks a certain way doesn’t mean you will if you do that workout. “Remember that we all have different body shapes and styles, and our bodies may respond differently to exercises being shown. Don’t expect to get the same results as what you see on the screen, or compare yourself to others.”

The findings are being published in the latest issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal.