Experts concerned as Brits turn to quick weight-loss fixes driven by body image

Woman looking at weight loss quick fix on phone. (Getty Images)
Have you been tempted to try weight loss 'quick-fixes'? (Getty Images)

Online searches for 'weight loss exercises' have increased by 552% in the last year, with searches for 'quick weight loss' increasing by 581% year-on-year, highlighted by a new ASICS campaign expressing concern over 2024 being the year we've returned to 'an era of weight loss fixation'.

Despite the rise in body positivity, the number of videos solely focused on 'exercise and weight loss' has increased by 204%, 33% more than videos focused on 'exercise and mental health'.

And in turn, the rise in rapid weight loss content has led to 42% of Brits – according to new research from ASICS – saying this type of content has made them feel worse about themselves and less motivated to exercise.

More than half (59%) of people agree celebrity and weight loss content is the worst thing on social media for people's mental health, while 72% believe society's obsession with the perfect body image is bad for mental health.

To help counteract the current fixation with exercise purely as a tool for physical weight loss (and it perpetuating unrealistic body standards), the new campaign supported by body positive influencers like Em Clarkson wants to disrupt social media with an alternative message.

It's important to move for your mind too.

Em Clarkson takes part in the new ASICS campaign. (ASICS)
Em Clarkson takes part in the new ASICS campaign. (ASICS)

The message will now appear when people search for online weight loss content and instead direct them to content that reminds people of the mental health benefits of exercise. Research conducted with Professor Brendon Stubbs from King’s College London shows that it takes just 15 minutes and nine seconds of physical activity to take the weight off our minds.

Here's a reminder of why quick-fixes, including drugs like Ozempic that are used off-label for weight loss, might not always be the answer, and why it's important to focus on staying healthy both mentally and physically, in a way that makes you feel good and is sustainable.

Small group of people having yoga practice in public park
Exercise should be something we enjoy doing. (Getty Images)

"By becoming too focused on the short-term and often narrow possibility of losing weight, we are neglecting the profound and multifaceted benefits movement can have on our minds," says Professor Stubbs, a leading researcher in exercise and mental health.

"The fact is that weight loss is hard and it takes time. Many people stop exercising before this happens because they become despondent when quick weight loss is not visible, or in some cases not possible. Instead, if people focus on doing exercise for enjoyment and the mental health benefits, people are not only protecting their minds but are also much more likely to remain engaged in exercise in the long term."

Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, chartered and registered psychologist, author, podcast host, and director of The Conversation Starter Project, adds: "Evidence suggests that quick-fix weight loss, through diet and exercise fads, often leads to only short-term gains and negative long-term consequences. The desire to lose weight quickly, perpetuated by societal norms and pervasive digital weight-loss content, can be damaging to self-esteem and self-worth, as people strive for an ideal that society has cultivated.

"The result can cause people to obsess over using exercise only as a way to change appearances. What often gets overlooked is the power of movement to support better overall health."

This is why reframing our relationship with exercise, and generally how we stay healthy overall, is key.

"Moving our bodies releases dopamine which boosts mood, reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and has long-term benefits for anxiety reduction," adds Dr Quinn-Cirillo. And we don’t always need to engage in 'formal' exercise for these benefits. Activities such as running, playing games in a park or even going up and down the stairs are all movements that can contribute to overall improved wellbeing."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 17: In this photo illustration, a box of the diabetes drug Ozempic rests on a pharmacy counter on April 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Ozempic was originally approved by the FDA to treat people with Type 2 diabetes- who risk serious health consequences without medication. In recent months, there has been a spike in demand for Ozempic, or semaglutide, due to its weight loss benefits, which has led to shortages. Some doctors prescribe Ozempic off-label to treat obesity. (Photo illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Drugs that aid weight loss can come with risks if taken incorrectly or by the wrong person. (Getty Images)

"As humans, we’re wired to seek quick fix solutions when changing our habits. Rather than opting for hard work, we often prefer methods that promise immediate results with less effort. This behaviour isn’t a new phenomenon," explains Dr Quinn-Cirillo.

"Medications, like Ozempic, provide a dopamine boost when we see rapid changes [though use of this drug for weight management is considered 'off label'] . This reinforces the desire for more and sustains weight loss."

However, the psychologist warns this approach carries the following risks.

  1. Negative Side Effects: Reports indicate serious adverse effects on overall health

  2. Mental Health Impact: Ozempic may lead to lowered mood and anxiety, sometimes referred to as 'Ozempic personality'

  3. Suicidal Thoughts: There have been cases linking Ozempic use to suicidal thinking.

How widespread is this issue? "Medications that aid weight loss, including Ozempic, have led to shortages. This scarcity further fuels the demand and psychologically reinforces the perception that these medications are effective and acceptable aids for weight loss."

Of course, drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy might be right for some people with certain health conditions, who have been prescribed it by their GP, but there is growing concern over how accessible it is to get a hold of on certain online sites for those who might not need it.

Ozempic and Wegovy both share the same ingredient, semaglutide. However, Ozempic is licensed for adults who have type 2 diabetes to use, not weight loss, though it can result in this. Wegovy is marketed as a weight loss drug.

So, why are more people being attracted to these drugs for weight loss, as well as other quick fixes and a pressure to lose weight fast, in the first place? "Celebrities, even when ill-informed, have significant influence over their followers. Their choices and the brands they endorse can impact public perception and can have dangerous consequences," says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. "Many people aspire to emulate celebrities, including body image, clothing, hobbies, and exercise habits. There’s often an assumption that celebrity endorsements imply trustworthiness, which may go unquestioned."

The psychologist adds, "Any form of movement benefits our mental and physical health. Move your body in the best way for you. Whether it’s walking, stretching, dancing, or playing, movement releases endorphins—the chemicals that make us feel good."

Watch: New ASICS campaign aims to change the way we think about weight loss

Always consult a doctor before taking anything new or making any drastic changes to your health. For someone to talk to any day, any time, you can call Samaritans on 116 123.