Take one look at Instagram or YouTube and you’ll see them – before and after photos of someone’s body transformation. And the message is always clear: follow this plan and, in anything from a few days to a few months, you too could achieve these results.
It’s a lucrative business. Figures from the 2017 UK State of the Fitness Industry report revealed the sector is worth more than £4.7bn annually – up more than 6% on the year before. A quick search for the #fitspo hashtag on Instagram brings up almost 54 million images.
But just who are these people selling their own fitness plans? Instagram’s most popular workout gurus all seem to share the same qualities – they’re photogenic, they document their daily meals and gym sessions, and they manage to make exercise seem aspirational. The problem is, neither Instagram or YouTube have any regulations about who can share advice – and often it’s unclear who the experts really are.
Training to become a fitness instructor can be done on the job at a gym, as an apprentice, or via a college course. Becoming a personal trainer (PT) is more advanced – first-aid training, an awareness of anatomy and physiology, and a qualification, which can from six weeks to three months to achieve, are all necessities. When it comes to diet, the title ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected term in the UK, so anyone can claim to be one. But to work as a 'registered nutritionist' you’ll need a degree or postgraduate qualification approved by the Association for Nutrition, or 7 years of professional experience in the field. And to work as a 'registered nutritional therapist', you'll need to complete a course accredited by the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine.
The Dangers Of Non-Expert Advice
It goes without saying, you shouldn’t put your health in the hands of the untrained (just take the self-styled health blogger who claimed that cancer isn’t “actually bad at all”). As registered nutritional therapist Frances Phillips tells us, there’s a whole lot of misinformation on Google. “My main concern is about where the information behind the plans are coming from,” she says. “The advice I give is evidence-based and I have access to all the relevant research. I'm also able to refer to other medical professionals if an issue occurs which is outside of my scope of practice.”
One of the main gripes professionals have with these non-expert programmes is the one-size-fits-all approach. “Fitness athletes are stars online, but their followers often try to train at the standard of a professional athlete, without the core level of fitness,” Rick Miller, a clinical and sports dietician, told the Guardian. “Following these kinds of workouts can very often lead to injury and burnout. If I were to recommend some of the things that fitness bloggers recommend, I would get struck off.”
A Move Towards Extremism
Both Miller and Phillips cite the trend for extremism as another worrying issue. “I see a lot of people promoting overly regimented or restrictive diets,” Phillip tells us. “It feels like it’s competitive virtuousness.” She explains that while there are some instances when completely removing foods from your diet is beneficial, it’s certainly not the case for everyone.
High-intensity cardio and full-on weight training are also powerfully advocated on social media – there are even pages filled with ‘inspirational’ quotes like: “Unless you puke, faint or die, keep going” and “Sweat is your fat crying”.
As Miller puts it: “Increasingly there seems to be this feeling of, ‘Why would I go for a gentle 5km jog or a moderate aerobic session when I can do a punishing high-intensity set?’” He’s also seen an increase in the number of clients having injured themselves doing online workouts.
“People get hurt largely because the message is: ‘This is what I do and there’s no reason it won’t work for you.’”
Sham Product Promotions
As social media stars are soaring in popularity, so has the direct trade between marketers and influencers. Why pay for your product to be on a billboard when you can pay an Insta guru far less to promote it to an engaged, fully-targeted audience. Influencers earn around £100 to £100,000 per sponsored post, depending on the size and strength of their following.
But data has shown a sharp rise in complaints about adverts posted on social media. Although the law states sponsored posts must be labelled clearly with the hashtag ‘#ad’, the UK’s advertising watchdog has warned that thousands of influencers aren’t being open about paid-for promotions. In reality, the people promoting these products may not even like or use them, and there’s no guarantee the products themselves are even safe. One such health fad, Flat Tummy Tea, promoted by some of the world’s top Instagrammers, was found to have violated regulations as it didn't make reference to a health or nutrition claim that was authorised on the EU’s register.
“I would never recommend ‘quick fix’ weight loss plans to my clients as I believe it’s counterintuitive to having a healthy relationship with food and is not sustainable long term,” Phillips told us. “In fact, I recommend my clients actively avoid these kind of processed diet products entirely.”
Finally, but no less worryingly, many fitness stars are promoting unrealistic – and unhealthy – expectations of what fitness really looks like. Personal trainer Anna Rhodes, from St Albans, is just one of the Insta gurus who have come forward about the truth behind their perfect images. Sharing side-by-side shots of herself – one from a professional fitness photoshoot, the other alone in her apartment – Rhodes wrote, “These photos don’t represent what I ACTUALLY looked like in real life being that low body fat, which was kind of emaciated and exhausted looking.”
Rhodes revealed that the professional photos made her feel “guilty”, as people were aspiring to look the same way. “It was essentially an eating disorder under the guise of fitness and I’m not afraid to admit that,” she added.
Body positive health bloggers like Sara Puhto have also shed light on the tricks influencers use to look slimmer and more muscular in photos – powerful reminder that we shouldn’t believe everything we see and read online.
Doing Things Right
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom for those getting their fitness kicks on social media. There are plenty of properly trained PTs and accredited nutritionists making healthy diets and regular exercise accessible, simple and enjoyable for anyone with an internet connection. The key is to always check credentials – you'll usually find these in Instagram bios or the 'about' section of influencer's websites.
One of the UK's bigggest fitness success stories, Joe Wicks (aka The Body Coach), has the numbers to back up his successful 90 Day Plan – one degree in sports science, five years as a professional personal trainer and three years as an online nutrition coach. Whereas major Insta stars like Emily Skye are not only qualified personal trainers themselves, but hire an army of experts to co-create their fitness plans – Skye's FIT programme, for example, was made with the help of an advanced sports dietician, a personal safety expert and a clinical psychologist.