If your Instagram Explore page looks anything like mine, chances are you can’t scroll for more than 20 seconds without encountering some kind of #fitspo. Curated mirror selfies and gym videos of girls lifting weights in matching athletic sets have taken over the platform, and it can be easy to believe that anyone posting videos of their workout routine (with a conventionally desirable body to match) knows exactly what they’re doing.
While there are definitely positives to the Instagram fitness trend – much of the world is battling an obesity epidemic and normalization of any sort of physical activity is arguably a good thing – Instagram fitness has its downsides. As a certified personal trainer, I’m always shocked by the amount of health misinformation I see perpetuated through social media and even more shocked by the amount of influencers giving advice and even selling services and programs who hold no professional qualifications.
The growing trend of unqualified Instagrammers selling fitness advice and programming is problematic for a number of reasons.
- While it is not currently illegal anywhere in the United States to give out fitness advice without professional qualification (laws are much stricter regarding nutrition advice), unqualified individuals giving out unwanted advice could be opening themselves up to charges of fraud and negligence.
- Unqualified individuals often give out advice that is at best ineffective and worse health-threatening. I can’t count the times I’ve been scrolling through Instagram and seen posts promoting completely ineffective exercises or absurdly complicated HIIT circuits that will surely place the average individual in risk of injury.
- Selling fitness services and programs without a certification is disrespectful to the thousands of hard-working trainers and instructors who did invest the time and money to be able to safely give quality advice. Fitness certifications are not cheap, they take months to study for, and being a qualified fitness professional requires an advanced knowledge of exercise science. You can imagine the frustration of a professional who saved to invest in a certification and studied hard for months on end to obtain proper qualification upon seeing someone making money and likes off of shoddy fitness advice who has invested no time and money into making sure they were giving out legitimate information.
While there are thousands of accounts selling unreliable information, there are also thousands of hard-working professionals who have gone through certification processes and are doing their best to distribute factual health information. How can you spot these professionals amidst a sea of imposters? Here are a few tips:
- Always check what certifications a person has. If anyone is giving out advice and especially if they are trying to sell you programs and services, they should be happy to let you know which qualifications they possess. The ACE (American Council on Exercise), NCSF (National Council on Strength and Fitness), and NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) personal training certifications are generally the most legitimate and accepted certifications. You should make sure that anyone’s certifications are accredited through the NCCA (National Commission of Certifying Agencies) – this goes for things like health coaching and nutrition certifications as well!
- Pay attention to the nature of the advice someone is giving. Does their advice conflict with what you’ve seen elsewhere? Also, are they referencing any evidence or scientific studies or claims? Of course, a non-professional can reference studies as well, but qualified professionals are more likely to do so because we are taught how to make evidence-based recommendations in our certification programs.
- Pay attention to the movements someone shares. Are they doing ineffective or dangerous exercises such as lower leg lifts, donkey kicks with no resistance, or sit-ups? Qualified professionals are more likely to share safe and effective exercises and will provide disclaimers on exercises that may exacerbate common conditions (for example, lower leg lifts will exacerbate low back pain).
- Pay attention to the workouts someone shares. Are they constantly doing crazy complex and highly intense movements? It’s crazy to me how often I’ll be scrolling through Instagram and see outlandish exercise circuits that I would never consider giving to my clients, classes, or putting out to the public. Instagrammers promote these sorts of circuits in an effort to stand out from the crowd, but most of the time they aren’t based in functional movement patterns or science. Be skeptical of any complicated movements shared on Instagram, because resistance training can be extremely effective when it’s kept to a few basic movements.
I hope that this article has instilled a healthy skepticism for social media “fitspo.” Of course, not everyone on Instagram is a fraudulent fitness star – there are plenty of professionals who use social media to promote their training services, myself included. With a little bit of awareness and skepticism, you’ll be able to sort out the legitimate from the fraudulent.