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The Problems of the Fitness Industry in the Age of Social Media

Social media fitness can be a wonderful place. Lots of #fitspo from the #fitfam, or in non-social media speak, inspiration from fitness influencers and enthusiasts alike. It’s a place to learn about fitness, varying from those who take a deep dive into the research of exercise and nutritional sciences to those who just like to share their anecdotal experiences. And for others, social media fitness is a place of comfort where people can empathise with others about their struggles to cut weight, gain muscle and eat healthily.

There is, however, a not so pleasant side. The fitness industry is awash with misinformation. Whether it’s for commercial purposes or ideological stances, many claims are made that can be detrimental to your progress and health. The rise of short-form content on TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts removes the nuanced understanding required of topics such as exercise form, fat loss strategies and and recovery protocols. And while some advice may be well-intentioned, it often amounts to nothing more than broscience, advice based on fitness lore and unsubstantiated by any reasonable empirical evidence. Here are some of the dangers, pitfalls and problems of the fitness industry to watch out for.

Man working out with dumbbells

On social media, expertise is often equated with appearance or the number of followers one has. While both could serve as an indication that a content creator knows what they’re talking about, this isn’t always the case. Numerous content creators promote myths such as claiming one can spot-reduce belly fat (you actually can’t) and that if the post-workout anabolic window is missed, you lose all your gains (you actually don’t). Some research even suggests that one in four workout videos provides incorrect advice.

Conversely it also means that people who have a wealth of knowledge and experience, but don’t look the part, can be overlooked by those who’ve mastered the art of taking the right photos on Instagram. As Layne Norton, a fitness coach, powerlifter and PhD in Nutritional Sciences, said during Mark Bell’s Power Project podcast, “It’s easier to make a living in the fitness industry when you have a six pack.”

Which leads us onto the next problem of social media fitness. The fake natty. The fake natty, short for fake natural, is someone who takes steroids or other forms of anabolic assistance, but claims their results are due to hard work, genetics and their superior knowledge. They sell workout programs, supplements and coaching services to naïve fans who hope to emulate their results. Sadly these fans pay their hard-earned money to these fake natties, wondering why they can’t achieve the same results as the fitness influencers they idolize. After more money spent and more frustration, they give up.

Instead, advice from a legitimate natural or someone transparent about their steroid usage would likely have resulted in more appropriate advice for the non-enhanced trainer; or at the very least given them an understanding why their results differ to those of their favourite fitness influencer. Knowing that a large chunk of fitness influencers are taking steroids and not being transparent about it is valuable information to know, so much so that ‘natty or not’ is often a trending fitness topic; videos that analyse whether a particular fitness influencer is likely to be on steroids.

Video by Greg Doucette: The Fakest Fake Natty Of All Time... Top 5!
A video by Greg Doucette listing his Top 5 fake natties

While the fake natty problem pervades the fitness industry on all social media platforms, it’s just one problem of many. Fake weights and even fake muscles in the form of synthol injections are other rabbit holes that are best avoided for those looking for legitimate, practical advice.

And then there are supplements. The fitness supplement market is very much saturated with long-established sports nutrition companies to fitness influencers selling their own line of protein powders, multivitamins and testosterone boosters. While supplement manufacturers don’t make as ludicrous claims as they did in the past, it’s also worth noting that very few supplements actually have scientific backing as being effective. As Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization says in his Nutrition Myths series, “Supplements are basically a myth.”

What about coaching? For some people having a fitness coach is useful because you can ask questions and receive responses in a timely manner, the coach can adjust your nutrition and exercise plan depending on how you’re progressing, and others just like the accountability that comes with having a coach. The problem arises when the coach you hire isn’t the coach you get.

Various outsourcing companies exist looking for fitness content creators that have a sizeable following. These companies contact the fitness content creator and put forward a proposal: We see that you have a large following. How would you like to make some easy money? If you start offering coaching services, we’ll take care of everything. We’ll make the plans, we’ll contact the customers and we’ll answer their questions. As we’re doing all the work, we’ll keep the money but you’ll get a 15% cut of each sale. What do you think?

For the fitness influencer, the temptation of such an offer can be too much to resist. They don’t have to do anything and they’ll earn money for each client that signs up. The problem, however, is that these companies don’t care about the best interests of customers. Exercise and nutrition plans will be generic, not customised to the individual who’s paid for it, which can be a recipe for disaster. Plus there’s that ever-so-small issue of the customer not getting coaching from the person they thought would be coaching them!

A well-known case of a fitness influencer providing generic coaching plans is Brittany Dawn, who promised one-on-one coaching but didn’t provide personalised plans. Complaints revealed Dawn’s generic plans advised clients with eating disorders to under eat when in fact what they needed was to eat more.

Brittany Dawn apologizing
Brittany Dawn released an apology video in 2019 and has been sued by the state of Texas.

An analysis of the problems of social media fitness also requires a look at the algorithms of social media platforms. Video sharing platforms such as YouTube and TikTok promote videos that have high ‘watch time’ percentages. While this suits the interests of the platform, getting people to view more and stay on the platform for longer, it can be counter-productive for the dissemination of practical fitness information.

That which is extreme and promises instant results gets high watch times whereas realistic, middle-of-the-road information is drowned out in a sea of more dramatic content. In an attempt to get more views, specific diets are training methodologies are lauded as incredibly effective while others are attacked for being dangerous and unproductive. Viewers are influenced by this fitness ‘partisanship’ that engenders a tribal mentality, preventing people from taking the most suitable approach, which more often than not is somewhere in the middle.

In deciding who to listen to for advice and take inspiration from in the online fitness world, it’s worth taking a cautious approach. Qualifications and degrees certainly help. Barring that, someone who has experience working with clients over a long period of time can be a good choice. These coaches and trainers have developed an understanding of how fitness isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but that we all have a different position on the bell curve, with some being hyper-responders to a particular stimulus and others not. The content of middle-of-the-road fitness content creators may not be as sexy or emotionally charging, but they’ll give you a better chance at sustainable progress, and importantly, the opportunity to enjoy your fitness journey.

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