One of the downsides of social media is the upcropping of the fitness influencer. These “trainers” grow in number of followers and scientific blunders by the day. It’s time we, as the pros, call out the fit-fluencer red flags and teach our clients about real, evidence-based practices.
How Body Image is Impacted
In 2018 in an IDEA Fitness Journal article, Vogel asked the question: “Does the fitness industry have a body image problem?” The findings: Yes. It does.
This article drove home the point that there are pressures from inside and outside the industry. Such pressures come from traditional marketing and media in general as well as competition with colleagues, and crazy high expectations from managers (and ourselves). From the social media angle – the images portrayed imply that professionals, such as us, do or need to look a certain way. I call B.S. as did Vogel (2018).
The Persona of the Fit-fluencer
Give the following fit-fluencer questions some thought.
- Who is the fit-fluencer?
- What do they promote?
- What is their messaging?
- What images do you associate with them?
Take a second to reflect. What comes to mind or who do you think of? What language do they use (weight loss, small, skinny, ripped, etc.)? Do they promote an array of expensive “proprietary” supplements or advertise their canned “3-month workout plans”? We all know someone (or multiple individuals) who fit the profile of an influencer. We may even follow them.
Typical Fit-Fluencer Red Flags
Now that you spent some time answering those questions, I’m curious how many of the red flags below are similar to what you imagined.
Insta-influencers are typically individuals that fit this persona or profile and display these characteristics.
- Lacking credentials and education – this is not always true, but the majority are not credentialed
- Questionable attire/imagery – many influencers are often displayed shirtless or in attire that reveals or promotes a certain look. It is completely possible to get a quality workout in without missing key components of your outfit. But influencers don’t take this into consideration because, again, it’s about image. They use their bodies as their business cards and somehow convince people that their physique equates to knowledge.
- It’s not uncommon to see these individuals backed by large MLM companies or other entity that provides financial backing. This explains the massive number of followers that accompany these accounts.
- Influencers also promote overly complex routines and overlook the basics.
- Their messages lack science and/or take creative liberties with the science (i.e., cherry-picking data).
- Their messages are laced with diet culture mentality (don’t eat carbs, eating after 8 p.m. is bad, this food is “good”, or this food is “bad”, and the list goes on).
Let’s dig a little deeper into the subtext of the messaging themes that raise more fit-fluencer red flags.
- With these individuals, you often hear the word “proprietary” which really means “no one else knows what’s in it”. With supplements, we already know it is not a heavily regulated industry and verifying the quality and purity is anyone’s guess at best. Because something is labeled proprietary does not mean it is the best (or safest) option nutritionally.
- The Detox! I love this one. Insta-influencers seem to forget that the human body is capable of detoxing via the liver, kidneys, and integumentary system (they probably don’t even know the basic physiological mechanisms that keep us well). They also advertise different food combinations, electrolyte powders, and/or teas that offer no health benefits and can cause GI distress. Diarrhea is not detoxifying.
- Next, most of the messages is about the before and after pictures (as if bodies aren’t allowed to change over time). The messages are also heavily laced with messages of weight and size and offer no mention of non-scale victories. Highlighting again that it is all about the image and the physical!
- Most who fit in this influencer category are selling something – not a service – but a product – teas, equipment, memberships. Portion control containers, supplements, meal plans (which is a huge red flag), etc.
- Finally, the message always seems to paint the picture that a person will be happier if they are thinner and/or muscle-bound – or my favorite nonscience word – “Toned” – what is that anyway?
Are any of these characteristic fit-fluencer red flags familiar to you? How often do you see them? There’s a stark contrast between the influencer and the influential (and credentialed) health and fitness professional.
The influence of these misguided fit-fluencers is not always benign. It’s important to be aware of the real-world impact of consumption of fit-fluencer content.
- Exposure to content can result in increased body dissatisfaction (Deighton-Smith & Bell, 2018).
- Health and fitness-related content is largely aimed at women (but has consequences for men).
- This content and messages are often driven by female celebrities and fitness models (Carrotte, Vella, & Lim, 2015)
- #fitspiration/influencer content is perceived as setting the “ideal” representation of health and fitness (Raggatt et al., 2018).
- “I use the images for goal-setting. I could look like her.” This is unrealistic for most individuals.
This is just a small sampling of the research that has looked at the influence of this type of content. The scariest aspects are:
- Research indicates most users are younger (teenagers/adolescents)
- There is a perceived connection between thinness and health – as if they are the same thing
- The aspirations are unrealistic and discouraging.
And these are just the consequences that speak to our clients and the consumers of this content. What about for us? The professionals? The authentic, evidence-based professionals?
The point is, we are not in this business to “beat them” or to “overthrow them” – but we are here to share evidence-based practices these phonies are unaware of. Help your clients identify what messages detract from their progress or result in feelings of disappointment or failure. Encourage them to click “unfollow”. I encourage you to do the same.
Carrotte, E.R., Vella, A.M.., & Lim, M.S.C. (2015). Predictors of “liking” three types of health and fitness-related content on social media: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17, 8, 205.
Deighton-Smith, N. & Bell, B.T. (2018). Objectifying fitness: A content and thematic analysis of #fitspiration images on social media. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 7, 4, 467–483.
Raggatt, M. et al. (2018). “I aspire to look and feel healthy like the posts convey”: Engagement with fitness inspiration on social media and perceptions of its influence on health and wellbeing. BMC Public Health, 18, 1002.
Vogel, A. (2018). Does the fitness industry have a body image problem? https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/does-the-fitness-industry-have-a-body-image-problem/