If I had to use one picture to illustrate what the fitness industry machine represents to me, it’d be this one:
When I became a trainer in 2005, fitness marketing was done through magazines and infomercials. The reach of this marketing grew exponentially around 2010 when social media began to spread its wings. I was 19 then, and I remember feeling the pressure to fit into a box of what was defined as “toned, but not too muscular.” That was my first battle with body image, and unbeknownst to me, the messaging that was coming from the fitness industry was negatively impacting my self-esteem.
Insecurities surrounding body image have always been profitable to the fitness industry. Fitness marketing often simultaneously exploits your fears while boasting “scientific” evidence to support buying into it. Feeling all those emotions makes it hard to see it for what it is: a game that we’ll always lose. I call it the “fitness fear” game. Here’s how it’s played:
Step 1: A trend is established (or often, re-established) that makes us feel ashamed about our bodies.
“Ah, yes, the heroin chic era is back in! Let’s pile on the pressure to be thin.”
Step 2: Something shiny is dangled in front of us.
“Get the long, lean body you’ve been dreaming of! Fast! Scientifically proven! Big words!”
Step 3: We venture in so that we can finally feel confident and happy about how we look, right?
Wrong. The shiny thing appears great on the surface, but as we get deeper in, we get chewed up and spit out. We wind up feeling ashamed for failing at something that’s designed to be impossible to do.
And what happens when we’re feeling that ickiness? We want it to go away. So, we swim to the next dangly, shiny thing we can because we feel desperate. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a cycle that I’d wager you’ve gone through.
I don’t dislike the players. We’re the players. I love us. But I do detest the game because it’s intentionally stacked against us. Most of the time we’re not even aware that it is. Whether the game is a diet, off-label use medication or new workout craze, the house always wins. Unsustainable methods always lead to unsustainable results.
The fitness industry is one of the only health-related fields of study that completely lacks checks and balances. It is devoid of oversight committees, policing and policy changes that need to be put in place to stop the massive spread of fitness misinformation that only exists for the purpose of turning profit. That’s why it’s so hard for us to discern between reliable and unreliable sources when it comes to our health. Any fitness influencer can slap a label on a protein supplement, google a research study that supports the claims they plan on making to sell it and there you have it.
Fortunately, I was able to obtain my Ph.D. in physiology before fitness marketing took me down a rabbit hole that I’m not sure I would’ve been able to crawl out of in my early 20’s. It was my formal scientific training coupled with my experience in the fitness industry that made me stop and say, “Somebody ought to do something about this mess.” That’s why I do what I do today.
The season for the dangly, shiny ads featuring overly aggressive fitness routines, diets and before/after pictures is here. My biggest advice? When you see them, just keep swimming. Leave the fear in your rearview mirror. You might not know it, but you already have the ability within yourself to improve your health in a way that doesn’t require you to feel scared or ashamed. If that sounds good to you, give us a buzz. We’re the happiest workout place on Earth, and we’re here for it.
Lee Ann Jolly, Ph.D., is the co-founder of Jolly Bodies Fitness where she leads the design and development of fitness programs based on the core concepts of creativity, education, imagination and efficiency.