I’ve been at this personal training gig for a while now, and I’ve seen more than a few trends in the training world come and go. Added to that is the rise and evolution of social media as a networking tool and vehicle to promote one’s business online.
As I get closer and closer to biting the bullet and creating an Instagram account for my own business, I still have reservations when I take a good, objective look at some of the stuff that goes on around me.
And trust me, I know that avoiding Instagram isn’t going to be the finite ‘protection’ from any of this. But one thing certainly does interest and concern me: For an industry that’s supposedly all about health, wellness, fitness, progress, and a million other positives, I can’t help but notice a number of behaviours that we, as a community, tend to turn a blind eye toward.
The “fifth wheel” of health and fitness, within that specific community, is undoubtedly that of mental health. Though it’s on people’s radar a bit more than it used to be, It’s clear that it’s the one element that we as fitness professionals have historically discussed the least – and we also don’t seem to think that the ways in which we encourage others to become involved with fitness could be contributing to the problem.
What’s worse: when we do decide to bring it up, we either go about it in the wrong ways, or use the wrong spokespeople.
No one wants to write this, so I will.
A Safe House for The Insecure
I can’t think of any other profession where the things you do can be so directly related to your feelings of self-worth and validity. Taking the time to document (and acquire positive reinforcement for) the work we put in to help a client get results, help ourselves get results, or to acquire more continuing education is a common practice, and one that’s surprisingly very specific to the fitness industry. I can’t imagine it being done to the same degree, for instance, in the worlds of Finance, I.T., Law, Engineering, or Dentistry.
Fitness is a very close-knit and competitive community. Maybe even a little jealous and egocentric.
Maybe a lot more than a little.
For so many of us, our relevance as professionals rides so much on the amount of e-validation we get from our contemporaries on social media, that very reliably lasts no more than a few days. Whether our posts come in the form of a holier-than-thou dissertation about how to lift, eat, act, or live (more on that later), a photoshopped selfie, or a congratulatory announcement to a client who just deadlifted a new max, they’re there on social media for everyone to behold – and as professionals, we’re all guilty of it in one way or another.
It behooves us to think about the long term effects some of this behaviour may have on our mindsets, however. When we’re on social media making our own posts of greatness, or reading posts of greatness from other very popular experts, there’s a 95% chance we forget all about the countless fitness experts in the industry opting against building a “following”, who could train circles around our favourite coach’s favourite coach.
The nature of social media creates a platform for many to disguise their actual levels of confidence or outspokenness, by hiding behind their monitors to avoid face-to-face contact – regardless of how incendiary their statements may be. When I read some of the nasty comments on training articles I write or instructional videos I release, or when I see vitriol posted on other people’s free content for the public to enjoy, I always think about whether such people could be so poorly parented that they’d speak like this in a 1-on-1, in-person conversation to the author, whom they haven’t met before. I also wonder whether they’d remove their nasty comment if it wasn’t validated via the “like” button by the other similar-minded members of their troglodyte support system.
We can slice it how we want: At the end of the day, social media, with all of its fantastic conveniences to connect people, has done a whole lot of damage to human communication and interaction. Step 1 of making a change to the mentality of the fitness industry is realizing this for fact.
As far as the fitness side of social media is concerned, it can transform into a war zone for the insecure. The prize is short-term attention, and no one’s conceding.
Your Body: Your Business Card to Overshare Culture
Pretend, for a second, that you’re someone new to fitness, looking to make some positive changes to your health, and prepared to adopt this as your new hobby in good intention.
You may have physique goals to go along with your health goals, and you may be in search of legitimate information from a professional whose physique impresses you to pursue similar development.
Nothing wrong with any of the above – until what I like to call “overshare culture” grabs hold.
When people see constant uploads of scantily clad selfies accompanied by a vacuous quotation or proverb, surprisingly few people question it as anything other than confident motivation; Not the need for likes, not indecent exposure, and certainly not the promotion of a potentially unhealthy obsession.
Physique goals are physique goals. Tracking progress is important too – especially early on. But it’s possible to be a fitness expert and wear clothes at the same time. Especially if the goal is to drive home a balanced and stable mental attitude towards fitness and health in the first place. Physique competitors have stage bodies that many people covet; bodies that many of them are very unafraid to plaster on their social media as testament to their hard work and dedication to training. But few recognize that those coveted stage physiques are displaying the most depleted, weakest, hungriest, most neurologically zapped versions of themselves that don’t last much longer than a couple of days at a time. I can only imagine the mental havoc this can wreak on the competitor after years of such behaviour, and how much can be passed on to trainers more junior.
Body Positive, Mind Negative?
I heard once that truly loving your body while wanting to make changes to it in the gym is impossible.
That’s just a small piece of the pernicious culture of the “body positive” movement that I think deserves attention.
To be clear, I think the entire foundation of the pursuit of fitness and health is upended if you don’t approach it from a place of self-love, self-care, and in good confidence and spirit. In my opinion, it’s the only attitude that will allow your journey to be sustainable, and promote good long-term mental health.
However, I also think that simply setting modest physique goals isn’t a glaring example of body negativity, especially if exercise and training is partially meant to encourage and inspire as many will claim it is. Moreover, such an idea rocks the basis upon which at least half of the personal training industry is built (think about how many clients simply want to “lose their love handles”, or “look better naked”?). For those after body composition changes as a vehicle to improved physical health, I’d surely say they’re looking to make such changes because of self love, not due to the lack of it.
Body positivity and body shaming are both real things that should be taken very seriously – but they also shouldn’t be misconstrued. The former shouldn’t provide exemption from pursuing goals in the gym, nor be a source of guilt for one making the decision to do so. The latter shouldn’t exist at all, once we acknowledge that there are many examples of ‘healthy’ that don’t duplicate the look of a magazine cover model we see on newsstands.
The body positivity initiative is a good one, and contains a good message. But for the sake of good health, It just can’t afford to fall on the wrong ears.
Interestingly, I’ve noted something more. In contrast to many professions of personal improvement, from what I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of crusaders for body positivity are people who have experienced a long personal history of struggles with body negativity, and have since found a way to turn their perspective around. Believe me – this is not an attack, nor am I implying that having firsthand experience isn’t valuable to relate to others who are currently struggling with those same issues. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether or not this fact would skew the angle from which the ideas of body positivity, training, fitness, goal setting, physique, health, body composition, and nutrition are all viewed – and if so, how deeply.
Can there be too much of a “good thing”? Can such a vantage point – whatever it is – possibly move someone to be more hypersensitive toward things like goal-setting, “clean” eating, improving one’s physique, or other certain aspects of the topics listed above? Moreover, would it be presumptuous for a person who’s had no body image issues growing up, to become a body positivity activist?
I guess we’ll learn the answers when we actually see some.
Life outside the gym…It Exists.
I’ve written in the past about the true testament to balance that is being able to exist without talking or thinking about training while outside the gym. If a banker, an accountant, or a postman thought about and spoke about their work with everyone at all waking hours every day, we’d all be quick to acknowledge that there’s a real problem and imbalance worth addressing. The same for a recreational movie watcher, poker player, or car enthusiast. Strangely, far fewer of us are ready to make that assertion when the subject turns to fitness, nutrition, and lifting.
Training is the answer to a whole lot, but it’s not the answer to everything… No matter what your online guru says. We run into problems when we try to make this about more than it is. Training improves health. Health improves vitality, confidence, resilience, longevity, and even one’s influence on other lives. That’s undisputable. But extrapolating your personal fitness and training into being about a journey of triumph towards something greater, an enlightenment, ultimate empowerment and a greater purpose is a reach and a half, and one I’m not listening to.
Let’s not act like you have it all figured out because you’re now more muscular than before. The amount of physique photos people post accompanied by a long disquisition about beating odds they never faced, about overcoming adversity they never saw, or featuring some misapplied quote from Nelson Mandela may come off as inspiring, but quickly loses its punch when some version of this is on the page of almost every expert you find online. To me, it speaks more loudly to the mental state of the industry.
And who can really be to blame for this? This is a professional industry generally dominated by young people – people who haven’t seen all that much life (relatively speaking), and may have found fitness and training as a healthy exodus from a flawed and possibly “incomplete” life they were once leading. In this light, it’s more than an occupation. It’s worth every hair on our heads to acknowledge that it’s an occupation that contains many people who, though young, have “been through stuff”. Interpret that how you may.
To Outsource, Or to Life Coach?
Because of all this, the fitness industry and its experts seem to feel inclined to wear more hats than they probably should. Whereas before it was easy to be a trainer who crossed the line into nutrition talk, today it’s easy for a trainer/nutritionist to cross the line into life coaching and human psychology. I can only imagine what actual clinical psychologists and life coaches think when they come across blog articles from trainers explaining the keys to being happy, how to pick up, morning mantras, and the ways to win in life (whatever that means).
The desire to be deemed a public figure and to be followed by many as a “personality” has permeated much of the online fitness coaching industry, definitely dwarfing the idea of a fitness coach being followed as a fitness coach, for his fitness coaching. In some cases, if enough hype is generated via followers who may have trouble thinking for themselves, it can place a neat shawl over the truth that many people might be influenced on training, eating, dressing, living, politics, or relationships by a ‘leader’ who’s damaged and ultimately demonstrating that through his or her desire (need?) to be validated and followed online – even in areas that begin moving further and further outside his or her actual expertise.
If we let it, the fitness industry can manifest itself as something it shouldn’t be: A competitive one-up culture, ripe with social media accolades that mostly mean nothing. A bastion to protect insecurities rather than a vehicle to confront them and possibly improve oneself by overcoming them. A catalyst to a newfound, full fledged identity instead of a new and healthy part of life. A vocation where every professional encounter becomes a forced friendship and photo-op for documenting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I know I probably sound crusty, and at one point I would have directed people towards fitness as a true natural answer to help lots of depression and self-esteem issues, and to improve mental energy. Today, despite all of the same benefits, I’m not sure I would. Fitness is an industry being taken over by the wounded. If you’ve read this far, chances are, you’re more open to approaching this game with a level head, which can prove to be a breath of fresh air in a sorely misled culture – whether you’re a lifter or a coach.
And that couldn’t happen in better timing, because what much of fitness has become attached to has bastardized what it’s actually about, and for every person it “helps”, it seems to be negatively affecting two more.
The worst part is, they may not even know it.