Fitness Culture and the Internet: The Absolute Worst Combination for Good Mental Health

These days, fitness culture is doomed either way if it's on the 'net or social. Here's what to do about it.

Among my jobs under the fitness umbrella is that of being a part-time professor at a popular Canadian college.

That hands me the responsibility of doing my part to prepare young fitness and health promotion students for what they’re in for if they embark on a personal training career. That’s a pretty big ask, and luckily I’m not alone.  Being born somewhere around the year 2001 poises a young person to be immersed in a virtual reality that may rival real life – and they may not even realize it.

I sound old and crusty. But this isn’t a ‘get off my lawn’ admonition to the new school technology or ways to make a living. It’s placing the microscope on today’s landscape where something a bit more important is concerned.

In truth, this applies to far more age categories than the college stock. Any gymgoer who’s looking for direction as a novice should be put on notice that some places are better than others in their pursuit for more knowledge and a better culture. In my opinion, the internet is no longer one of the good ones.

A Virtual Reality

In a world of airbrushing, fake weights, and selfie culture, it’s not a far stretch to say that the internet fitness world and its ‘for the gram’ toxicity does its fair share to take health away from its rightful position in the fitness game… at least by its intended definition. The internet is being misused. Along with the spreading of misinformation and the false ideals of desirable and attainable fitness, comes the other side of the coin: the inescapable judgement, shaming and negativity that’s regularly doled out by people with nothing better to do.

It takes a strong mind to be able to withstand this. Even for the best of us, it can be taxing on mental health – especially if a whole lot of one’s time is spent on the internet. What may have had its inception as an innocent motivational tool usually ends as something that contributes to the pernicious danger that makes the division that much starker.

I’d like to say there’s a silver lining in the form of good quality content, and that’s true, until it isn’t. Mental health may be salvaged in the absence of obscene superficiality, but in the legit training world, it’s often made up for by way of dogmatism amongst professionals. Reading through various blogs on the internet can silently coerce a middle-of-the-road trainee to “pick a team” to belong to. Maybe it’s the team that says functional training is all the rage (whatever that means). Maybe it’s the “big lifts or bust” mentality. Or it could be the group that touts prehab and mobility as paramount for gains. Whatever the camp enlisted, it equals a closing of the mind toward the idea that many forms of training and exercise are important for a healthy life. And it may even include taking the time to sully the reputation of other fitness professionals while at it.

Everything about social media and internet culture perverts the main point of training as a lifestyle.  People in the habit of posting their “highs” on their social platform as a form of inspiration with zero context, miss the true point of giving a person encouragement. That’s made worse when people believe that what’s largely seen in the presented physiques online should be readily attainable in person – and the real hindrance is a “lack of hard work” or “not wanting it enough”.  Give me a break.

All Fake Everything

Putting oneself on a pedestal in a made-up world can be taken a few steps further when larger platforms (or people of greater celebrity in and out of the industry) do the same. All of a sudden, selfie culture turns into photoshop and airbrushing culture, impressive lifts are actually comprised of the empty bar and multiple pairs of fake weight plates, “inspiring, motivational quotes” are laced with callous solipsism, and you’re a troll if you opt to call it out online, but you’re an enabler if you opt not to get involved.

Take a second to consider this: The majority of the idolized physiques in popular culture are the possessions of men and women in their 40’s, 50’s and even older who have bodies more muscular and lean than most have in their 20’s or 30’s. We, the common folk, look on in awe and possibly in subtle hopes of achieving the same thing, even though we may fully know that such physiques are aided by performance enhancing drugs and other unhealthy supplementation or dietary methods.

We don’t have too many examples of “normal” available to us in the mainstream.

Because “normal” doesn’t get views, or clicks, or likes. “Normal” doesn’t sell subscriptions.

There’s a reasonable, balanced way to pursue gains, and it doesn’t mean settling for mediocrity. The problem comes when a person sets the bar at an unreachable standard, which is what we’re usually inundated with in our news feeds.  The long game should be the area of greatest concern, and that’s a concept I’ve personally gotten renewed passion for as a nearly 35-year-old lifter with an adjusted perspective toward training.

Preaching balance and touting normalcy isn’t an excuse to stop setting goals, training hard, or pushing yourself. It’s a reminder that you can’t play the ‘no excuses’ game without putting your health at expense somewhere along the line.  And that includes your mental health.

Addiction to exercise programming, working out, training research, or a life/training balance is something that virtually nobody admits to having if asked. Maybe they’re too embarrassed to acknowledge it, and I’d be the first to offer that what they’re being fed on the internet and social media isn’t doing much to spark the epiphany.  Feeling like you’re a cut above the rest by consuming copious amounts of training content that happens to give smarter, more scientific training advice is hardly a solution. Just because the content is free of scantily clad photos or hot-button article topics, it doesn’t mean it can’t spread harm in almost the exact same ways.  And gym obsession is real.

You against the World?

With all of this negative talk, it’s important this article doesn’t contribute to the problem, and instead, provides a solution. Getting into the mindset of competition against others is the true root cause of almost every issue noted above – and it’s imperative that this mindset shifts to that of going to battle against none other than self.

That may mean turning a blind eye to the overwhelming, short-term gratifying world that is the internet for your fitness advice.

Before thinking that that’s impossible, let’s look at the landscape realistically. We don’t have to go to the days before the internet was even a thing to find a time when people weren’t severely influenced by it for their day-to-day lifestyle. Even in 2010, Instagram and TikTok didn’t exist, Facebook had fairly different settings and uses than it has today, and twitter was hardly on the map. We didn’t think much about mid-workout selfies or the latest hashtagged “challenge”. There were fewer audiences of complete strangers we felt our workouts depended on impressing.  There was less fodder consuming our minds to distract us from the only results that really mattered at the end of the day: Our own. And I think people were happier.

It’s really worth the experiment.  Applying some form of change to your use of the internet where gym life is concerned – be it a list of unfollows to accounts that don’t provide any benefit to you, an account deactivation, or maybe something as simple as removing mobile access by deleting the apps, or allotting yourself less daily screen time for less exposure – can probably give your brain the break it needs from unwanted content.

Even if doing so causes you to miss out on some of the “good” stuff, it may present itself as a challenge to trust your process and train intuitively. It’s an opportunity to clear the mind, work with what you’ve already learned, keep things simple, and become more attuned to the way training makes you feel, and less about what experts decide is the best choice for you.

There’s no anodyne way to say this: Today, social media and the internet do more harm than good in most circles – especially when fitness culture is put under the microscope. It takes one look at the comment section of virtually any popular post to catch my drift.

With that said, don’t let your body and brain start arguing with you too.  Preserve your mental health.

Log off for a few hours.

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