In this article:
- The extended lockdowns of 2020 made it the year of fitness influencers who inspired millions of people to start working out at home.
- For some women, this trend increased the pressure to emerge from quarantine with a fitter, more physically attractive body.
- While it’s great that fitness influencers can motivate us to be more active, it’s worth considering the effects that fitness trends have on the mental health of women.
The year 2020 was the year of fitness influencers or, to be more specific, Chloe Ting workouts. The fitness influencer’s videos made several rounds on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. It seemed that everyone, from your roommate to your boss, was joining in her viral workout challenges for fitness.
You might have seen the most popular video on her channel, too: Get Abs in 2 Weeks. I have to admit that my younger self would have clicked on the thumbnail, unrolled a yoga mat, and gotten down to business.
But older me is a lot more educated on fitness and the harms of diet culture. I know that as appealing as the video’s title sounds, you can’t really get a six-pack in such a short amount of time. Unless, of course, you already have very little body fat and a nice muscle definition to begin with.
Therein lies the dilemma that fitness influencers pose. In today’s world, social media users turn to influencers for guidance on all things fitness. I’ve fallen several times into the blackhole that is Instagram’s Explore page when looking for a quick workout routine, checking the correct technique in performing an exercise, and tips on upping my protein intake.
On most of those times, I’ve based my decision to click on or engage with a post depending on one’s following — or, worse, their appearance. It’s not so important if they had a background in sports science or were professional trainers. If a fitness influencer shared a lot of booty workouts and had the proof in their, let’s say, pudding, I’d save the content for later.
I can imagine that a lot of people seeking advice on health and fitness base their decisions this way, and that is problematic on so many levels.
This is especially true when society is still obsessed with equating fitness to appearance, which certainly reflects on the fitness creators that gain a large following. Having the appearance of health — which, let’s face it, is characterized by leanness and attainable by weight loss — does not necessarily mean one is, in fact, healthy.
Another problem is how much trust we’ve been conditioned to put on any healthy-looking person who spouts off the latest in gym science. One minute we’re all tracking miles on the road because fitness experts said it was good for cardiovascular health. The next minute, we’re all about tracking our macros to build muscle mass outside of the weights room. As long as they look like they know what they’re talking about, we should believe them, right?
Fitness Influencers: Are They Good or Bad?
There is no easy answer to this question. Even I can’t discount the positives of the proliferation of fitness influencers and their content going viral. Just imagine Chloe Ting’s abs routine. That video alone amassed 473.09 million views. Imagine getting almost half a billion people to follow along your workout, or at the very least introduce them to exercise. It’s an incredible feat worth celebrating.
In a nutshell, this is the power that any influencer holds. They can “influence” their audience to do certain things, such as trying a new workout or being mindful about their diets, which can actually improve their lives.
Their ability to persuade people into action primarily stems from the trust they’ve built with their community. Fitness influencers are able to do this so effectively because they’re their own testimonials. We only have to look at their feeds to judge if their advice is worth following based on the results they show.
A lot of fitness influencers also appear to be relatable individuals. They’re people you might even know or be friends with, which is really what makes their accounts so successful. We think, “If they can turn into these athletic-looking people, so can I.”
As relatable as fitness content creators are, their training regimens are really anything but. Much like celebrities, they get paid to be fit and to look fit, so it’s not surprising that they’re obsessed with counting reps and macros. Some influencers even revealed that the use of performance enhancers is rampant in the industry — which, of course, no one will openly advertise on their Instagram bio.
Most people just don’t have the time or mental capacity for such rigorous training schedules and meal plans. Not everyone is blessed with good genetics either, or can even control all the factors that affect body composition like a thermostat. Add to that the fact that we’re clearly being deceived by what really goes into the bodies of many influencers (hint: its PEDs). When we don’t get the results that fitness influencers promised, we end up feeling down in the dumps.
Personally, I’ve sworn off exercising altogether in the past because I put so much effort into Kayla Itsines’s once-popular 28-Day Bikini Body Guide and got nowhere. I was working out 6 days out of the week and reduced my calories to what her program suggested. And by the time I arrived at the beach in my bikini, I felt tired, hungry, and even more self-conscious than when I started.
That’s not to say that everyone’s experience is necessarily going to fall along the same track. But it’s a possibility, given the worrying evidence that social media use negatively impacts our body image and self-esteem. Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of too much exposure to social media. While fitness content can motivate some to work out, it can also trigger body image issues and disordered eating habits.
To Follow or To Unfollow?
The dark side of looking up to fitness influencers in an almost cult-like manner is that we begin to lose the reason we clicked the follow button in the first place, which is to improve our health and get fitter. Instead, it becomes all about what fitness influencers promote.
Even if we’re no longer enjoying exercising a certain way, we continue doing it because we feel part of the community that the fitness influencer built, surrounded by like-minded individuals sharing in the same fitness journey. We tread along because we want the results a fitness influencer demonstrated we could attain…if we only put our minds to it.
But exercise should never feel restrictive or punitive. “I had one too many cheat meals so I’ll work out extra hard in the gym today,” is something we might have said at one point. When that becomes the prevalent mindset we have about exercise, we become too focused on the goal of looking a certain way and forget that it’s okay to just move our bodies in any way we’re able to. Because it is absolutely fine to exercise just for movement’s sake and to celebrate what your body allows you to do.
Fitness influencers have done a lot of good in society, at least in terms of showing that exercise is accessible to most people. But their influence should stop there, especially if they’re not really licensed to promote fitness or nutrition advice. We don’t really know if a content creator is promoting a new workout as a marketing ploy for a product or service, or if they’re genuinely interested in educating their followers on improving their wellbeing.
Nowadays, my easy solution is to be cautious of the fitness content creators I follow. I still go to social media to look for fitness trends out of interest, which may lead to one or two new fitness influencers to follow.
But I’m more mindful of the language they use. Do they focus too much on appearance-based results, like “Grow your glutes in 2 weeks”, or outdated and toxic sayings, like “Abs are made in the kitchen”? Those promote a very clear message about what they really value about exercise, which is to look a certain way instead of feeling good about moving one’s body.
It does take a bit of work to check their bios or About Me pages for any formal education they have. But, if it means I’ll only get science- and evidence-based fitness advice, it’s totally worth it.