Ask any trainer about the problems in our industry, and you’ll get a litany of dysfunctions: fitness education, social media, body-image issues, professionalism, misinformation about nutrition and supplementation …
Every trainer has a different list, but we’re unanimous in saying we have issues we need to address.
And yet, none see themselves as part of the problem.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since September, when I started my Instagram account and found myself in a front-row seat for the biggest dysfunction of all: inspiration culture.
We’re inspired by businesspeople, athletes, actors, and, most of all, fitness personalities. But what exactly do we find inspiring?
It’s not the sacrifices they made to get where they are. We don’t think about how the businessperson put his family aside in favor of a high-stress, low-sleep lifestyle. We don’t think of how the athlete pummeled his body to reach the pinnacle of his sport, or how that damage will leave him with constant pain and potential brain damage for the rest of his life. And we don’t think about the distance between the image the fitness star projects while playing a character on social media and what that person actually did to get into the shape we see on her Instagram page.
This is the Kardashian Effect in full swing. Being wildly popular for flimsy reasons ultimately turns the spotlight to the viewers, who actively support their high profiles with views, subscriptions, likes, and shares, despite nothing of substance ever coming from said profiles.
Is the professional smart to leverage any kind of celebrity? Or is the viewer just silly to succumb to it?
I can’t answer those questions, but I can certainly ask these: When it comes to fitness, what actually inspires you? And why do you find it inspiring?
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We’d be smart to remember that it’s no longer a novelty to be well-known or popular; 24-hour social media has exponentially increased both the supply and demand for celebrities. But it hasn’t increased the value of what those celebrities offer. In fitness, advertising your business in your underwear can get you a big following on social media. But it doesn’t make you a better trainer.
Nor does having fame as a fitness personality make you qualified to spout endless life advice on your wall.
Another way to get a big following: Endorse extreme or polarizing exercise goals or training methods. As with politics or religion, you can draw a lot of like-minded people. Or, turning it around, you can write off basic, innocent physique goals as “body insecurity.”
In every case, we need to apply a modicum of critical thinking before we follow one of the fitness personalities I just described. We have to ask what the long-term effects of his or her advice will be.
Are the go-hard-or-go-home proselytes who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff really promoting a healthy, fitness-focused lifestyle? How will someone who lives by a “walk in, crawl out” gym mantra feel about that choice when he’s 85?
READ ALSO: “Forget About Setting Goals. Do This Instead.”
The blind leading the blind?
Imagine this: You’re out to dinner with someone who stops the conversation every five minutes to assure you he isn’t crazy. Even if the thought hadn’t occurred to you before, wouldn’t you begin to think that maybe he is a little crazy?
Now think about the behavior that so many of us consider “inspiring.” How much of it, in a different context, might be seen as cries for help?
Instead of gauging someone’s fitness expertise by the glossy, high-resolution images they post to say their life is so amazing, or by the level of nudity they display on their public profiles, or by their constant admonitions to be happy or respect yourself, ask yourself if there’s any substance behind their advice and rhetoric. What can you apply to your own life or workouts? What supports your lifelong goals?
And what happens when the person who thinks he has life figured out because he PR’d his deadlift and dialed in his nutrition hits a few bumps in the road? It can be painful to watch when the vital elements of your identity are no longer there. It’s that much harder if you’ve built a brand around that particular persona. You’re like an athlete who’s only useful in the absence of a career-ending injury.
Yet time and again I see examples of popular fitness-industry personalities abusing their bodies, be it through training methods, dietary habits, supplementation, or obsessive mental behavior.
Each time, intentionally or otherwise, they’re “inspiring” scores of recreational trainees ready to follow suit.
Inspiration culture is flawed
It’s plain and simple: Anyone can become an “influencer,” but every influence ain’t positive. I can personally relate plenty of examples of people who started out with healthy goals and good intentions, but ultimately went down a slippery slope of insecurity, imbalanced thinking, and an overall lack of perspective that transcended “fitness.”
If you want to know if you’re susceptible, start by answering the questions I asked earlier:
- When it comes to fitness, what actually inspires you?
- Why do you find it inspiring?
Taking the time to figure out what inspires you to hit the gym can help you develop some long-term perspective. What puts you on the path to better lifelong health, and what could potentially damage it?
And for the record, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being motivated or inspired by someone lifting a ton of weight. Or by someone with a hell of a physique to show for all their efforts in the weight room. Or by a top-tier athlete doing what he or she does best. Or even a clip or quote of someone preaching the gospel of self-love.
We all need to have a few of those workouts that feel like we’re not gonna make it out of the gym alive. We all need to give ourselves an occasional kick in the pants by tightening up our nutrition, and we all need a reminder that it’s okay to feel confident in our own skin.
But there’s a big difference between seeing and experiencing these things once in a while, and seeing and experiencing them every single day.
And when that culture invades your newsfeed, and you surround yourself with people who share and amplify it, you’re part of the problem. You’re supporting people whose influence is based on dangerous practices and bad advice; you’re helping to normalize those things among people who look to you for advice and encouragement; and you may even be heading into that vicious cycle yourself.
Which isn’t exactly inspiring, is it?
A version of this article originally appeared on the author’s website.
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