“It’s a challenging industry”: the training of fitness influencers

Only 16.4% of fitness influencers have qualifications, despite the fact that more than half claim to be fitness experts. Is there a need for further regulations and training for social media influencers?

The memories are still so clear: the never-ending beep of the monitor, the potent smell of disinfectant, the white clinical light, and the coldness of the IV drip stuck in her arm. She remembers it so vividly that it seems as though she is experiencing it all again.

In a constant cycle of losing and gaining weight, Urvashi Lad has struggled with accepting her body her entire life. But her wake-up call came when she ended up in the hospital after dealing with bulimia, an eating disorder that made her severely ill.

Urvashi first noticed a change in her body image when she began gaining weight while she was at university. This led to an unhealthy obsession with overindulging in food, which caused her to reach a size 24 until she resorted to making herself sick. “I was really overweight and quite depressed at university and then I had bulimia after I left so I lost a lot of weight through binging and purging.”

Instagram has a higher impact on self-esteem than any other social media platform, according to a study conducted by Holland and Tiggemann (Credit: Fuu J, Unsplash).

“I used to throw up two times a day easily, sometimes three and it just became a habit, and I lost around 15 kilograms doing that which is ridiculous and really bad,” said Urvashi, who knew if she carried on, she would continue to harm her body. “I got really ill and because there were no minerals in my body, I ended up getting all of these bad cramps and I couldn’t hold any food in, and this is when I realised this is wrong, I was killing myself.”

After struggling with her eating for so many years, Urvashi was determined not to fall back into old habits. She then became interested in fitness, especially boxing and weightlifting. But as she turned her love of exercise into a career as a personal trainer, she used social media to hold herself responsible. “I yo-yo’d [yo-yo dieting] all of my life and I needed to find a way of keeping myself accountable to other people and myself, because just doing it by myself wasn’t working so I started posting about boxing.”

“People wanted me to coach them because of my journey, because I wasn’t just a skinny girl who went to the gym and looked good

Urvashi Lad, Fitness Influencer

Urvashi’s fitness account @Pushwithush gained rapid followers after she earned her certification as a personal trainer and health coach. While many people were more willing to listen to her fitness advice once she had her qualifications, it was her personal experiences that piqued people’s interest.

“People wanted me to coach them because of my journey, because I wasn’t just a skinny girl who went to the gym and looked good,” Urvashi said. “I was someone who had been on this ridiculous yo-yo dieting cycle of self-loathing and depression, so they were like we trust you and trust that you have our best interests at heart.”

Alongside fitness, Urvashi is currently preparing to lead a more holistic lifestyle and to become a life coach who focuses on assisting both the mind and the body(Screenshot from Urvashi’s Instagram account, @pushwithush).

As more influencers use social media to build their personal brands and fan following, it’s become harder to discern whose advice we can trust. The vast majority of fitness influencers are not qualified to be giving fitness or exercise advice to their followers, according to a study by the University of Alberta.

Only 16.4 % of fitness influencers possessed fitness qualifications, despite the fact that 57% claimed to be fitness experts. According to the study, this lack of qualifications may contribute to false information and unhealthy behaviour, particularly in light of the pandemic’s influence on people’s decision to look for exercise advice online.

Many fitness influencers on Instagram build their followings primarily based on how they, or rather their bodies, look. This is troubling since many people assume that by doing this, they may assist others in achieving their fitness goals, according to Urvashi Lad. “There are people out there who put plans together because they think they are good at the gym and they’ve lost weight, and then think they can now coach people online and there’s no regulation for that at all,” she said.

In order to help influencers express themselves honestly on social media, Urvashi has been vocal about the need for further social media training since she launched her fitness account on Instagram in 2017. “What would be good is for people to be taught how to use Instagram properly, in terms of making sure they are not selling this dream lifestyle or filtering everything,” she said. “It’s good to see people go ‘well, this is what the before and after actually is’, but its either photoshopped or someone breathing in.”

“Instagram could do some verification on people that are qualified so that people have to prove that they have a qualification,” said Urvashi, who thinks this will limit the spread of unhealthy and false information about fitness on social media.

Fitness influencers have prioritised their physical appearance over giving their followers appropriate exercise advice, according to a recent Insider article. This includes fitness influencer James Ellis, who started using steroids after he noticed that his Instagram following was rapidly increasing.

“The danger comes in when people follow these workouts and don’t see the results they see on their phone

Matt Evans, Health and Fitness Journalist

This can be risky for followers of these specific fitness influencers who begin utilising their workout regimens in an effort to get the same figure. Matt Evans, a health and fitness journalist, claimed it can be detrimental to people’s self-esteem and mental health when they don’t see the same results as the influencer promoting these exercise regimens. “From a male perspective, a fitness influencer on steroids and extremely jacked might present themselves as somebody that has never taken steroids in their life and say to follow this fitness workout to ‘get a chest like mine’.”

The new trends of highlight reels, motivational posts, workout advice and diet plans have changed the way people perceive fitness influencers and incited debate about what comes next – and whether there needs to be additional restrictions on social media to ensure people are receiving information in a safe and healthy manner.  

Journalists, unlike social media influencers, are bound by regulations and ethical standards while reporting on health and fitness, which forbids them from disseminating false information that can risk or harm others. Since social media is not a regulated platform where content is moderated and checked, influencers regularly abuse and operate outside of ethical standards, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Media Ethics.  

Before sharing fitness-related content on social media, influencers should undertake editorial training and cite their sources, according to Matt, who has to provide his readers with accurate information as a journalist. “In order for social media fitness influencers to show credibility they must either be qualified or go through the same kind of processes that health and fitness journalists like myself would be doing.”

“The best fitness influencers on social media cite sources or are qualified or go the extra mile to present the relevant evidence but many don’t and that’s when dangerous practices can occur,” said Matt, who believes that because of the freedom that social media gives its users, it’s easy for influencers to spread damaging health and fitness advice.

Due to COVID-19, many personal trainers were forced to stop working in gyms over the past two years. As a result, they started providing fitness advice online and in return, more people turned to social media for workout tips or diet plans.

Despite the fact that many personal trainers have achieved success on social media, Amy Bucker-Smith has worked to distance herself as far as she could from the influencer lifestyle due to the pressure to create a false portrayal of her life. “I’m not massively into Instagram because of what it has become in the fitness world, but even with training and knowing what is realistic and healthy, you still occasionally get sucked into thinking, maybe I should look like that or maybe I should stop doing that,” she said.

Fitness influencers have more fans and followers now more than ever before, and with this greater exposure comes a certain level of fame that can range from micro-influencing to major brand partnerships. Some even pursue it as a full-time profession.

“I think just because you have a personal trainer qualification, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are any safer or wiser.

Amy Bucker-Smith, Personal Trainer

Working with brands, social media influencers add their own attractiveness to their product and boost the possibility that their followers will make purchases, according to 2019 study published in the Journal of Marketing Management. However, many influencers have frequently promoted a product they haven’t used themselves or don’t know for sure are safe.

Influencers now use social media platforms, particularly Instagram, as a business model, and it is the misrepresentation of products that has to be regulated, according to Amy. “If it is a fitness influencer who is really passionate about health and fitness, and they are sharing their journey and they are not recommending people certain things, then I don’t think there is much issue with it,” she said. “Endorsing products that they don’t even use themselves or don’t understand the products, the practises or whatever it might be, then that’s where the concern is.”

However, it is not just unqualified social media influencers that face ethical challenges. Amy claims that fitness influencers with credentials are also part of the problem and would benefit from training on how to use social media appropriately. She said, “I think just because you have a personal trainer qualification, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are any safer or wiser. Some kind of combination of fitness training and knowledge about social media and safe practices could be a good idea.” 

While it should be a requirement for influencers to obtain fitness qualifications before they can share exercise regimens and diet plans, says Amy, it is also crucial that influencers learn how to be transparent in the advice they give their followers. She said, ““I think it’s the endorsing of unsafe products that is probably the worst thing so more honestly is probably the most important thing.”

Belle Gibson, an Australian content creator, claimed she used healthy recipes to treat her own brain cancer but was later found to have never had the condition. She also alleged to have donated a significant percentage of her salary to cancer charities, some of which she had raised with the help of her Instagram followers.

Many fitness influencers focus on their appearance before giving their fans quality exercise routines (Credit: Anete Lusina, Pexel).

Young people are increasingly turning to social media for health-related content in areas such as physical activity, nutrition, and body image, according to a 2018 study conducted by the University of Birmingham.  With the rise of fitness influencers online, it makes social media users more vulnerable and willing to listen to their advice. 

Some fitness influencers even falsely claim to have the necessary certifications to instruct others, according to Matt Evans. “You do have the risk of people citing themselves as qualified professionals and that not being the case as with all things with social media, it’s very easy to lie and present yourself as something you’re not.”

Instead of attempting to reform how Instagram and other social media platforms monitor potentially harmful advice, Matt appears to place the burden on the audience who consume the content rather than the fitness influencers who choose to publish this material. “There’s so much falsehood out in every single corner of social media and in order to get through that, you can’t police everybody but what you can do is educate the public and give people the best change of telling the good from the bad,” he said.

Others have concluded that it is the responsibility of influencers to change how they engage with social media, but Matt thinks this will be unsuccessful, and it should be consumers that alter their behaviour. He said, “I don’t think that a widespread crackdown on what influencers would be able to do would be very effective, I think the industry would just morph around it but what you can do is teach the public some basic critical thinking and in relation to social media, every time you see an Instagram post, it’s about thinking twice.”

While restricting influencers on social media may be challenging, it is important for them to comprehend how their content affects people’s mental health and perceptions of their bodies. By being more authentic and transparent, fitness influencers may lessen the negative impacts of social media and foster a more positive environment for their audience.