How the Fitness Industry Destroys Itself; and How To Fix It
By: Coach Taylor Simon
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This has been percolating a long time in my head.
The fitness industry is broken. It defeats itself. It stands in its own way and prevents some truly passionate, educated, and intelligent individuals from being able to truly make the health of our entire population better.
The health and fitness industry struggles to help the population at large deal with the continued epidemic of lack of activity combined with an indulgence of poor nutritional practices. We blog about it, post about it, make TV shows intended to inspire people to change their lives, publish hundreds of magazine every month filled with information to assist people to make positive change.
And all the while it is the fitness industry itself that is the problem.
Yes. It is us. It is the gym owners, bloggers, personal trainers, fitness coaches, strength coaches, aerobics instructors, crossfitters, nutritional coaches, figure models, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts who are the real culprits behind the lack of efficacy in delivering the right message to the population. The message that could actually make everyone live a healthier life.
We like to sit on our high horse and blame Dr. Oz, magazine publishers, and a plethora of others for creating the issues. And don’t get me wrong; magazine publishers don’t give a fuck about your health. They just want to increase readership using the same tactics CNN utilizes to maintain viewership – sensationalization. And Dr. Oz – not much to really hash out there – if anyone still listens to any of his advice there is nothing that is going to get through that wall in their head.
But the age of the Internet should have taken away control from the mass media and allowed professionals to deliver true health information.
Alas, it has not.
Personal websites, Instagram, and Facebook pages of the vast majority of individuals and businesses in the fitness world do nothing but spew out a constant barrage of self-indulgent images and information that is so obviously a narcissistic need to garner support to bolster personal egos and feelings, that we are no better than the media conglomerates doing whatever it takes to make a buck.
The fitness industry itself does not even know what health is. The so called ‘fitness professionals’ have completely lost the definition of health. Somehow we have perverted what the word health is. There is an overriding belief that the measure of health is somehow related to appearance.
This could not be further from the truth. You cannot judge a person’s health based on their appearance. Period. Yes there are some outward indicators that can speak to the health of an individual. Jaundice is visible, anorexia is visible, morbid obesity is visible. But the real things that matter are not visible. Blood pressure, VO2 max, respiratory function, strength, mental health, stress, cancer, diabetes, and just about every actual health issue we should be concerned about is not readily apparent based on what we look like.
Yet consistently EVERYTHING in the fitness world is based on what we look like. Magazines, modelling, and celebrity aside, it is the fitness industry itself that perpetrates this delusion. It is the majority of personal trainers, fitness business owners, group exercise instructors, yoga and Pilates instructors, sport coaches, and strength coaches that cause the very problems they pretend to want to solve.
Where does it come from? When did we lose what the true meaning of health really is?
Focus on the aesthetic is nothing new. Since antiquity we have talked about the human form. However, this discussion was always combined with a focus, an association, on work and performance. The appearance of the body was idolized as a way to demonstrate
the physical feats of what the body was capable of accomplishing. It wasn’t until the rise of bodybuilding, which began around the year 1900 that the focus of what health was began to shift towards purely the aesthetic. Even as late as the 1950’s the majority of what we idolized as healthy were the strongmen and athletes, who did not poses the aesthetic of 6 pack abs and stick thin limbs.
Between 1900 and the late 1950’s we shifted from valuing strength and function to valuing leanness and thinness. After that, the population became less physically active and a larger percentage of people had the resources to access as much food as they could consume and the size of people began to swell. This further continued the shift towards focus on physique over strength and health as the bodies of people in developed countries drifted further away from a perceived notion of health based on aesthetics.
In 1963 we saw the formation of the first diet program, Weight Watchers, which is still one of the largest health organizations in the world today. I mean, just look at the words in the name, weight watchers. A focus on what you weigh, as if that had anything to do with your health. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we see the emergence of facilities catering to physical fitness for the general population with the advent of the gym.
Understand that gymnasiums have existed since the days of the Greeks and from 1700’s to the 1900’s gymnasium facilities existed based on German and Nordic models. But as the Western population grew and our daily activity decreased to levels of inactivity never before seen in large human populations in the late 20th century, more and more people began to seek out facilities to partake in physical exercise.
Welcome to the rise of the modern gym. And who opened, designed, operated, and grew this flourishing gym business? The bodybuilding community did. Almost everything in modern fitness stems from the bodybuilders of the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. And today what we epitomize as ‘fitness’ are bodybuilders, figure models, and other physique focused groups.
We are only now slowly seeing a shift away from bodybuilding style training; however, it isn’t a shift in the right direction. Today, 2016, we are slowing starting to move away from the aesthetic focus. Instead we are now idolizing only the most elite of the elite. American Ninja Warrior, the Crossfit Games, and The Biggest Loser.
All impressive feats and all out of reach for the vast majority of the population. They promote such an elite and physically demanding approach to fitness that anyone not properly prepared for the rigors of participation are doing more harm than good to their health.
The new attitude that fitness is only effective if you barf during training and cannot walk normally for days has combined with the bollocks belief that the leaner the body is the healthier it is. This has created an even larger misconception amongst the population as to what true health and fitness truly is.
I had hoped that the rise of the Internet would help to counteract this. That we could move away form pure focus on the aesthetic and move towards a focus on physical fitness that actually was focused on improving health.
It has not. Instead we continue to put those with very specific physiques on a pedestal as the perfection of health. And the supposed leaders of the fitness industry who have pledged to help the population become healthier, merely continues to ingrain and persist the notion that fitness = appearance.
Don’t believe me?
Check out various covers Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines from 2015. Note the name of the magazines, Men’s HEALTH and Women’s HEALTH.
There is a lot of debate and discussion amongst the fitness community that these publications need to change and stop canonizing these images as the epitome of health but then the same fitness community DOES THE EXAcT SAME THING.
The majority of people who think they are helping to make us healthier and fitter are actually driving the majority of people away and perpetrating the very false beliefs they fervently rally against.
Go through the images, posts, and publications of various well-known fitness names and business on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. What do you see?
Before and after photos, weight loss challenges, photos of very lean individuals, success photos in clothes that don’t fit anymore, and picture, after picture, after picture, of wannabe ‘health professionals’ showing off their bodies.
We idolize everything we are supposed to be trying to change.
Every selfie of your abs, every snap of you without a shirt on, every post of your plastic containers of perfectly measured organic, gmo-free, gluten free, paleo approved, low carb, low cal, free range, local diet, is teaching people that there is only one way to be healthy and only one way to measure what healthy is.
Every fitness program, every fitness challenge, every fitness business, every fitness inspiration story celebrates the same thing. Getting smaller, losing weight, looking a certain way, and fitting into a false notion of what health is.
Before and after photos. Transformation challenges. Skinny jeans programs. Weight loss competitions. The message: skinny is healthy, being smaller is better. This idea that the measure of a persons health is in anyway related to what they look like is fucking preposterous and yet everything the fitness industry does is built on the back of doing everything possible to fit into an aesthetic ideal.
The fitness industry today is a narcissistic fantasyland of people who think they are helping to motivate the population to health and fitness but are actually driving the vast majority of people away.
Most of these fitness people truly think they are helping. I guess I can’t fault them for that. They want to help and they are going about it the best way they know how. The way they learned, from the people before them, who did the same thing.
Those people learned from the people before them. It all stems back to the rise of modern fitness, which as we discussed, is based on the ideals of the bodybuilding world that created the gym world that made fitness and health what it is today.
The part that really nauseates me is that the vast majority of these ‘fitness professionals’ who truly believe they are helping people have not and are not, required to learn anything or garner the pre-requisites necessary, to be qualified educators and coaches.
Being able to get yourself lean and have a muscular physique DOES NOT qualify you to assist others to do the same. The fact that you LOVE fitness does not mean you have to try and make everyone else love fitness. Your ability to stringently monitor your nutrition is not an indicator that you are exemplifying the best strategy for diet that all humans should adhere to.
The problems facing the fitness industry are resultant of two factors:
(It might look like we are about to head off on a tangent as you continue on – but bear with me – this is all going to tie together at the end!!!!! We are going to explore point number two and then bring it back to point #1)
I have been in many debates with trainers and coaches over the years concerning the fact that personal trainers and fitness coaches step out of their scope of practice ALL THE TIME.
The fact that the vast majority of personal trainers, fitness coaches,
group exercise instructors, and others involved in the fitness industry DO NOT have anywhere near enough education and experience in physiology and biology is not the point of this article. It is not the primary issue confronting us. It’s horrific, yes, but it is not the root of why the fitness industry really fucking sucks.
So much of the fitness industry’s focus is on motivation. That we should be talking to our clients to understand their needs, to understand the issues in their lives, to delve into the real reasons behind their fat gain, to source out the issues with their personal lives and how it is affecting their health.
#sorrynotsorry for the following caps…
PERSONAL TRAINERS AND FITNESS COACHES ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO TALK TO CLIENTS OR TRY AND ASSIST CLIENTS WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH ISSUES, PERSONAL ISSUES, AND MOTIVATIONAL ISSUES.
We are fitness professionals. We build fitness programs. We teach fitness techniques. We monitor progress. We motivate people to try their best during a workout. We give guidelines for nutrition and what to eat.
That. Is. It.
Sitting with your crying client to try and understand what is happening in her personal life or in her past and how that is affecting her ability to commit to the fitness program she is desperately trying to stick to IS FAR BEYOND YOUR SCOPE OF PRACTICE.
Trying to employ tactics to increase adherence to a fitness program and motivate people to train more regularly is BEYOND YOUR SCOPE OF PRACTICE.
Your job is to provide exercise knowledge, physiology knowledge, support during training and programs, cueing, and long term tracking of progress towards the client’s goals.
That is it. That is all we are supposed to do.
And we aren’t even very good at that in the fitness industry. We literally do not even have standards across the industry to ensure that the basic aspects of what fitness professionals are supposed to do are done adequately and with integrity. We are really quite bad at even what should be the core of our profession.
We vehemently skewer and gorge dozens of other professions for overstepping their scopes of practice. We lambaste doctors for giving fitness advice. We bicker amongst ourselves at who is allowed to teach certain fitness techniques. Personal trainers lament that group exercise instructors attempt to teach advanced exercise form. Group exercise instructors are aghast that personal trainers start their own bootcamp programs. Everyone in fitness explodes when chiropractors or massage therapists give exercise advice.
And then we go and pretend like the most important part of our job is the work of a trained therapist, counsellor, or psychologist.
And because we feel qualified to dispense this kind of advice and information without a proper understanding of human psychology and behaviour and without ANY formal training in the field we are actually doing FAR MORE harm than good to the population.
(HERE WE GO! The moment you have been waiting for – where the fuck am I going with all of this??)
The narcissistic atmosphere of the fitness industry and the focus on the aesthetic has combined with our lack of understanding of human psychology and motivation to destroy our ability to improve people’s health and fitness.
You think you are motivating people when you post an after workout selfie in your sports bra.
You think you are motivating people to want to exercise when you snap a video of fitness advice in front of a mirror with no shirt on with your abs popping.
You think showing the progress of your glute development on your Instagram account with your ass at eye level to the camera will make people want to deadlift.
You think posting photos of your perfectly portioned meals for the week in their perfect little plastic containers is helping teach people how to eat well.
You think a Facebook post talking about how hard you work and how difficult all of your choices to be a fit person are is encouraging people that they can make the same decisions.
YOU. ARE. WRONG.
Dead fucking wrong.
All of these things that fitness people do that they think are motivating others to make changes and be to be healthier and fitter, aren’t. All this talk about making sacrifices and that you must suffer through the hardships in order to be healthy does not make people want to make changes.
The truth is that all of these things are DEMOTIVATING people to be healthy. They are turning people away from the fitness industry.
All of these things are driving the majority of the population into the arms of Dr. Oz, the food babe, David Wolfe, and the rest of the ‘health’ charlatans.
We spend so much time denouncing these people without ever realizing that the reason they have amassed such a huge influence is because WE HAVE DRIVEN THEM THERE due to our lack of understanding of human psychology and motivation and a narcissism that underlies the very core of the fitness world.
It is time for the fitness industry to become an actual profession, to grow up, to mature and until we do there will be no change.
What actually happens when we post half naked selfies, constantly promote health as a specific body image (almost always young and very low fat), and talk about how much hard work and sacrifice people will have to make to be healthy and fit?
We turn them off.
The best way to learn this is to read, The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. It is a fantastic introduction to the world of human motivation.
Remember in the 90’s when anti-drug campaigns were all the rage? Did you know that they actually increased marijuana use?! How? They kept talking about how many other kids were using marijuana, especially all the star athletes and popular kids, and to just say ‘no’ when they approached you.
So they told you all the popular people are smoking pot. Leading to everyone to the realization that way more people were getting high and that those kids were popular. And humans want to be a part of the popular group. Off went many more kids to take a toke.
That’s real psychology and motivation at work.
We know that people like to be comfortable and minimize work. Yet we spend countless hours telling people how much work they will have to do and how many sacrifices they will have to make in order to achieve the ultimate fitness goal of leaner limbs and 6 pack abs. Guess what? This drives people away from wanting to take up exercise or change their diet. They want to be comfortable. They don’t want to do hard work.
And then we report over and over how only 10% of people exercise regularly, and more and more people are becoming obese, that most people don’t exercise and everyone eats unhealthy food.
Do you see it? Do you see what we are doing?
We are, AT SCALE, telling people that most people don’t exercise, don’t like exercising, and are eating whatever they want. We then tell them that to be a part of the minority of people who are different is going to be hard work, require a ton of sacrifice, and be uncomfortable.
Do you see it?
WE ARE DRIVING THEM AWAY. People want to belong to the group. To do what everyone else is doing. We live in a culture that loves to believe in individuality and that everyone is unique. Unfortunately, this is just not true. People actually want to fit in, not stand out, and be a part of the group. That is basic human behaviour.
And off goes the fitness industry doing exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing to actually having an impact on the health and fitness of the population.
I recognize there are many other issues contributing to the current health issues of our population. Mass media messages, schools, and other cultural and institutionalized processes also play a part. Those are beyond our control as fitness professionals. But how we teach people about health and fitness is within our control.
And the modern Internet age SHOULD be allowing us to get the real message out.
Yet the vast majority of fitness wannabe professionals are actually pushing out a constant barrage of messaging that is driving away the majority of the public.
And I very much believe it is as much a result of narcissism as it is the result of lack of understanding and education (not school based, you don’t need University to be educated).
Fitness professionals need to educate themselves on the topics of biology and physiology. They need to understand what they are doing and stop simply copying what other people are doing. Teaching fitness isn’t about grabbing exercises off YouTube or from another persons program and giving it to a client.
Fitness professionals need to stop trying to be psychologists and therapists. This is way beyond our scope of practice. Period.
Fitness professionals should not be posting picture of themselves. Obviously a professional profile photo is just fine. But fucking stop it with the shirtless pics, the sports bra and booty shorts Facebook banners and Instagram posts, the close-ups of your ‘glute progress’, and the diatribes on your perfectly portioned meals for the week. THAT IS NOT WHAT A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL DOES. PERIOD.
It IS NOT motivating people to want to achieve what you are doing. It is you showing the fuck off and hoping someone tells you how awesome you are, how great your story is, and how well you are doing. FUCK OFF.
Go ahead and have your own personal accounts to fulfill every little narcissistic cell reverberating in your body, all the power to you. But if you want to be a professional, if you want to help make the term fitness professional MEAN something, you need to act like a professional.
I cannot remember the last time I saw a doctor, lawyer, or physiotherapist post a picture of themselves without a shirt or in a skin tight sport bra and short shorts talking about how their progress is coming along or showing off the #gainzbro.
What can we do? Where can we go? What should we be doing?
My business and practices over the years have been guilty of many of the things I am speaking out against. But we have learned. We are changing. We are making new commitments.
What is fitness? What is health?
There are 3 common definitions of fitness.
(Source: Google definition search: fitness)
Understanding these definitions of fitness can guide the future of the industry.
Number 1 is not definable. To be physically fit and healthy. What does that mean? How do you measure that? It is so variable and esoteric a concept that we should not pay any attention to it.
Number 3 is our biological imperative – our ability to stay alive and reproduce. That is not resultant from the fitness industry – that is modern technology and society itself. It is not a concern of the fitness industry.
But the second definition; the quality of being able to fulfill a task or a particular role, that is the real purpose of the entire health and fitness industry. We now calling it functional fitness and it’s a growing trend. You will hear statements like, ‘being in shape for what you want to do.’ That is looking at fitness as a measure of the ability to perform a task or activity specific to the person at that time.
We need to be able to fulfil a particular role or task.
Play with our kids. Compete in an event or race. Balance our blood sugar so as to not die of diabetes. Decrease our blood pressure to prevent a heart attack. Have endurance to explore new places while travelling. Be an athlete. Maintain flexibility and mobility into old age. This list could go on indefinitely.
These are real health and fitness goals. These are the things that will actually make the population better. That will actually improve the quality of people’s lives.
If people want to be able to call themselves a fitness professional they need to be promoting REAL health goals and outcomes.
No more before and after photos. No more celebrating weight loss. No more photos of people in their early 20’s with under 10% bodyfat (which isn’t healthy by the way), no more focus on how many inches people lose. We need to change our focus on the outcomes that REALLY MATTER.
Where are the photos of Sally who trained 200 times last year, Ed who met his goal of training 4 times a week, of Sue who competed in a sport tournament, of Paul who hiked with his grandkids last weekend, of Barb who no longer has diabetes, of Phil who improved his cholesterol and blood pressure, Anne who is not battling anorexia anymore, or Chris who improved his vo2 max over the last three months?
You know – all the things that ACTUALLY make your health and fitness better. That ACTUALLY makes your life better – forever. Not just for your vacation next month.
We are changing our direction. We are leading the change.
At my business, Taylored Training, we will only be promoting the measurable things that are within our scope of practice that will lead to long-term positive health changes.
Two things are our primary focus going forward and what I believe what the entire fitness industry needs to focus on.
Frequency of activity and level of effort during activity.
Firstly, frequent activity. The human body was meant to be active and moving daily. And it is meant to be able to move and work vigorously. Those are the variables.
Encourage people to be active as frequently as possible (our members average 4.5 training sessions a week) and when they are engaging in activity to exert an effort level of 80% of their personal maximum.
Do they have to be active in a gym or fitness facility? No. They can play sports, hike, bike, surf, run, walk, whatever. Unfortunately, the truth is that our modern culture is necessitating the use of fitness facilities and coaches. The lack of physical activity in our daily lives and the pressures and commitments on our time have led us to the point that participating in a structured fitness program is no longer a hobby for the few.
My father hates this fact but it is now necessary for people to partake in a structured and rigorous physical activity program. It is not a hobby anymore. Modern western culture is so devoid of physical activity and effort that we must now recognize the need of a formal exercise program.
Secondly, we must ensure people are working at 80% of their personal maximum. It is well documented that the perceived exertion scale, is quite accurate at measuring how hard we are working. And setting a standard on this means that everyone from a couch potato to extreme athlete can adjust their effort according to their ability. And this allows the individual to adjust the level of exertion based on their current state of health and physical ability.
Both of these fitness and health goals also come without an expiration date.
MOST fitness standards all have an end date. Weight loss, inches lost, a special diet, a race or even, and even fitting into clothing, a vacation or trip, or a figure show, all have end dates.
Then what? Where do we go from there? “Just pick another goal!” is the shout from personal trainers. No. That doesn’t work. It might for the small percentage of the population who love fitness and exercise, but we need to talk about the general population. And they have very few, and very limited goals. We need to be setting goals that last for the rest of our lives.
The target of regular frequency and high levels of effort never end. They are goals that are set for life. All other goals, such as the ones I just mentioned, can be achieved and worked towards with a focus on frequency of training and effort during training. Because when it really comes down to fitness programming and training, those are really the most important variables anyway.
Workout frequently, and workout with purposeful effort.
I hope that this message reaches many people. I hope it can start a new conversation and a new dialogue.
I want to see the fitness industry mature, to grow up, to change to what it can be. We have the most important job on the planet.
We are at my business.
Personal trainers, group exercise instructors, fitness coaches, and many other members of the fitness community are more important than doctors, politicians, and the pharmaceutical industry.
Those professions are very important as well. They are necessary.
But it is the fitness industry that has the most power to affect change for the entire population with the lowest cost and effort.
We have to mature, educate ourselves, and work together. When we do that, when we drop the ego, when we banish the narcissism, then we will truly be the force that changes the world.