Today, being a fitness instructor or personal trainer is not only about guiding workouts, but also about keeping your Instagram flowing (with perfectly edited snapshots of meals, tons of before and afters, and loads of “fitspo”). It seems like anyone who is involved in the fitness world is also heavily dedicated to their social media account. Although there are some trainers that share valuable material and positive messages on social media, the strong connection that has been forged between the fitness industry and social media has also caused many Americans to forget what exercise and fitness is really all about.
As a fitness instructor, I am concerned by how our jobs are portrayed on social media. Over-produced workout tutorials, super-polished before and after photos, and ever-present ads for expensive active wear have added a bunch of unnecessary glamor to working out. This has distracted many people from the main goal of being a fitness instructor: to promote an active lifestyle. It has also cultivated three major myths about fitness instructors:
Myth #1: We’ll help you lose weight.
Many fitness-focused social media accounts are bombarded by before and after pictures, which emphasize dramatic weight loss. This promotes an erroneous notion that fitness instructors are in the business of weight management, when truth is that fitness instructors are in the business of stress management. Exercise definitely helps people to live longer and happier lives by decreasing stress, improving mood, enhancing focus, and increasing overall stamina. But exercise is not likely to directly cause weight loss. In fact, one of the best ways to improve your metabolism is by doing exercises that help you build muscle…meaning you will actually GAIN weight from exercising. Fitness instructors do not directly help people lose weight. They give people the means to be more active. This has a plethora of other benefits, and may eventually come with the side effect of weight loss…but it might not. An article I saw published a few weeks ago (here) captures the essence of what a lot of social media is failing to reveal about the fitness industry:
By preventing cancers, improving blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar, bolstering sleep, attention, energy and mood, and doing so much more, exercise has indisputably proven itself to be the world’s best drug – better than any pharmaceutical product any physician could ever prescribe. Sadly though, exercise is not a weight loss drug, and so long as we continue to push exercise primarily in the name of preventing or treating adult or childhood obesity, we’ll also continue to short-change the public about the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise…
— Yoni Freedhoff
Myth #2: We all have perfect bodies.
Recently, a gym member asked me if I feel “super pressured” to have a six-pack, thigh gap, and perfect perky butt. I think she was shocked to learn that my answer was no. Although there was certainly a point in my life when I began to think that being in shape wasn’t good enough if I didn’t look completely shaped, I soon took a step back and realized that being flawlessly toned does not do much for my health. Detaching fitness from Instagram for a moment revealed that my primary goal as fitness instructor should not be to inspire people to have a perfect body; it should be to inspire people to have a healthy body. The best way to achieve this goal is not by sharing pictures of my six-pack, but by being there, in their face, telling my students that they’re awesome…and then showing them through example how much vitality and energy exercise has given to me. Basically, I don’t know many people who would “kill” to have my body, but I do know many who wish they had my energy level. And that’s what I want my students to be motivated by. I want them to see my determination, positive attitude, and robust stamina…and make that their goal of working out.
Myth #3: We’ll change your life.
In a lot of ways, social media portrays fitness instructors as figureheads, celebrities, and saviors. And that’s not what they should be. As a fitness instructor, I do not change people’s lives; I give them the space to challenge themselves, so that they can change their own lives. As I mentioned, the main goal of the fitness industry is to promote an active lifestyle. The best way for fitness instructors to achieve this goal is not to promote themselves, but to promote physical activity. Lives change ultimately because of fitness, not because of fitness instructors.
Social media has proven a powerful influence. And this is why overdone workout videos, weight loss photoshoots, and extra fancy active wear have successfully shifted our focus away from the most important goals of going to the gym. But it is not too late to change this.
Changing our ideas about fitness will not be about decreasing our use of social media, but about changing the type of influences that we interact with on social media. Let’s promote accounts that highlight the actual, direct benefits of participating in group fitness, which are way more valuable to our health than rapid weight loss. Let’s promote the trainers that don’t only use their extra toned bodies to attract clients. Let’s promote the trainers that acknowledge that it is YOU who changes your life through fitness, not them. Below are just a few of my favorite Instagram accounts that seem to have achieved this. Leave a comment below if you have any of your own favorites!: