Home workouts have never been such a big part of our fitness regimes, but are we clear on what kind of gains we can expect from them? Here’s why it’s time to demand more transparency from influencers and PTs.
Ever started a programme in a bid to look like the influencer flogging it? Ever quit because you still don’t look like that person after months… despite doing everything they told you to do? With home workouts being more popular than ever, now’s the time to ask ourselves the question: Are we being sold a lie?
Thanks to Covid, more of us are lifting weights, smashing push-ups and following online yoga classes in our living rooms than ever before. While national fitness heroes like Joe Wicks have guided us through successive lockdowns, helping people to move better in their living rooms, other influencers have seen this as the perfect opportunity to promote exercise plans and apps geared to home workouts. That’s a good thing! you might think – and you’d largely be right – but do we really know what we’re being sold?
At the start of the first lockdown, 23-year-old Robyn downloaded a fitness app created and marketed by a well-known influencer who has around one million followers on Instagram. Famed as much for her svelte frame as she is for her no-nonsense approach to gaining muscle, her fitness app is geared towards body image goals, with workout titles like “sculpting the peach” luring punters in with the promise of bigger glutes. Despite her initial scepticism, Robyn downloaded the app because it had “great reviews” and “the branding was so pretty”. However, it wasn’t long before Robyn “realised that the app is nothing special” because she wasn’t getting the results she’d expected – despite following the programme to the T.
The main problem for Robyn was, despite being marketed as such, the app didn’t cater for beginners: “I expected to get a better understanding of fitness terminology but found myself Googling stuff while using the app because I didn’t understand it.” This kind of assumed knowledge is just one issue with buying into programmes pushed by influencers online – many of whom may not be qualified in the first place. “It’s important to understand how things work, rather than just taking someone else’s word for it,” explains PT, yoga teacher and influencer, Shona Vertue. “That way, you’re less likely to get misled by some of the people with great bodies selling something that doesn’t really work.”
Not only is this vital for understanding how to progress and why something might not be working for you, but it’s also much more motivating. “Education is the best motivation,” says Shona. “Some people are motivated by visible abs but next thing you know, they hit their menstruation week and they’re no longer visible; it’s a rollercoaster in how it affects your motivation.” In Robyn’s case, she’s now found a workout style that suits her through vigorous researching and curating her social media feed to only feature people who focus on feeling good – “as opposed to just a one-size-fits-all plan based on the concept of looking like an influencer.”
Aside from the fact that many of us don’t have tonnes of technical know-how, perhaps a bigger issue at play here is the fact that many of us are simply being mis-sold a goal. Influencers market themselves when they sell us programmes and it’s reasonable to assume that we stand a chance of looking like them if we’re doing what we believe to be the same workouts. What happens when you do buy into a goal, only to find that the playing fields aren’t even?
Shona is a cheerleader for finding other reasons to train other than body image. Her 99 Reasons Campaign (“there are 99 reasons to work out and fat loss and body image don’t have to be one”) was created to persuade people to do just that: “You can work out for the gazillion trillion other reasons, like bone mineral density; having joints that enable you to live life better; even brain function and circulation.” Most apps heralded by the Instagram fitness community are based primarily on how someone might look once they’ve completed a programme rather than how they might feel, and too often, these promised outcomes are based on unrealistic standards set by influencers themselves. “A lot of these influences have a really strong foundation of muscle that they’ve built over months or years using heavy weights and mechanical tension – a mechanism of muscle building (hypertrophy) that is created by lifting heavy loads,” says Shona.
Influencers don’t always make clear how they came to look the way they do and all too often, their bodies weren’t built using the workouts they’re selling. That’s not to say you can’t get results from home or with minimal equipment – you can – but social media has become a Wild West in terms of realistic body image and marketing. Ella is someone who found inspiration in the recent body transformation of a reality TV star in the run-up to her own wedding. “I was in the final months of preparing for my wedding and had promised myself I’d be in the best shape of my life for it,” she explains. Like Robyn, she “got quite caught up in the marketing” and almost bought the programme. But “after looking further into the programme, which consisted of ten-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, I was convinced that she wasn’t sticking to her own plan and doing more behind the scenes,” Ella explains – a fear that was validated when this star later admitted that she had struggled with disordered eating and exercising which led to her dropping to a dangerously low weight. Ella says that during that period, this star was still promoting her plan, “which to me is deception even if she didn’t mean it to be.” Looking a little further into how the ex-reality TV star managed such a stark transformation, Ella found that her diet was slightly restrictive: “(She was apparently) cutting out sugar and eating chicken, fish and veg. While that might be fine for a healthy diet, I know from experience that restriction is tough on my mental health and brings on compulsive calorie counting from disordered eating habits I am trying to recover from.” Backing away from using a celebrity plan, Ella started to look inwards and “began being more accepting of my own body shape and listening to my body to find out which diet and exercise work for me. Luckily I was able to gain results without basing my image on somebody else.”
“This is something that isn’t talked about enough in the industry,” says Shona. “The number of women who have eating disorders but are at the forefront of the industry is quite messed up – and people are associating their narrative with health.” Whether it’s intentional or not, this kind of false advertising is just as dangerous and misleading as the kinds of images the fashion industry was once accused of promoting. Unrealistic body image re-labelled as “health and fitness” is bound to warp our idea of what being strong really means.
Home workouts work – that’s a fact – but the key is consistency and being realistic. Anyone who tries to tell you that getting fit is a quick fix or can be done with minimal effort is probably trying to sell you something that doesn’t work. We need better role models online who are prepared to acknowledge that progress takes time and looks different on every body.
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