Finding Fitness Advice Online: Part One
I want to get stronger.
My back hurts.
I've got this belly.
(It's possible that this is my favorite gif of all time. It is the embodiment of that delight you feel when you get just the food you're looking for.)
I'm a lot slower than I used to be.
I need to be able to field the ball better for my highly-competitive men's age 40-60 computer engineer softball league. We're undefeated and playoffs are around the corner.
I've been looking for stuff to do online, but there are countless options. How do these people know what kind of workout I need? Does their back pain behave like mine? How good is their softball team?
I need to fix all these things but I can't spend money on a trainer. What do I do next?
This is one of the most-asked and most important questions. Who can you trust online? How do you know which exercises or workouts to choose?
Fitness is a field where everyone feels like an expert, because everyone owns and operates a body.
This was intended to be one blog until I got to the part where I was writing about how the New York Times frequently misrepresents facts about exercise. I immediately realized that I needed to begin with how fitness information gets manipulated in media, and then write part two (and probably more, knowing me) about how to find quality, un-manipulated, useful guidance. Here's how to recognize when you're being gaslit (to use the mot du jour), then in part two I'll tell you how to find what you need.
There are millions of fitness professionals online. Who is competent and who is just eager to show off their abs? People can write their qualifications in their bio, but it doesn't mean they're a good teacher, and bios can be manipulated. I won't name names but a certain highly capable trainer whose blog you are reading at this moment has a part of her Instagram bio which says, "NSCA-CPT, CSCS, CFB." The first two are my main training certifications and those are real. But the third one? It stands for Certified Fucking Badass. So just remember that a bunch of letters is exactly that: a bunch of letters.
Plus, even if you find social media that you like, someone tries to ruin it. Because every time you think you've found something good, some asshole drops into the comments to let you know that what you were just excited to learn is the MOST DAMAGING, MOST LAUGHABLE, COMPLETELY AMATEUR, COUNTERPRODUCTIVE THING THEY'VE EVER HEARD.
I frequently see excellent pages full of comments like this:
"OMG, you're teaching people how to run? Without even telling them that running is AWFUL for their knees?"
"You think people should buy bands to use at home? They need weights or there's ABSOLUTELY no point. Read a book."
"Seriously? You're recommending serratus anterior exercises for scapula training? I know you have several degrees and two decades of experience but I once read a short column in Men's Health and GIVEN THIS INFO did you ever even once consider the role of the rhomboids?!?!?!"
Now, I know which commenters are valid and which are leaving steaming dumps all over the screen, but a whole lot of people don't. Those comments might make you think a page sucks when it's actually great. Like Simba going to the shadowy place, you must never trust the comments.
Fitness is a field where everyone feels like an expert simply because everyone owns and operates a body. More on this in a bit, but if the commenter mocking your new information is not some kind of fitness professional, ignore them. If the person mocking you IS a fitness professional but says any of the above three things, add them to your Never Follow These Dumbasses List. You do the fitness that you want to do, end of discussion.
Maybe you don't know what fitness you want to do, but you'd like to find it. That's what I'm here for. The first step is to understand the ways that fitness usually gets presented in the mainstream publishing and social media worlds. These are intentional, carefully-considered marketing schemes based on what will get THEM the best READERSHIP, not YOU the best WORKOUT.
I better start with the TL;DR version:
1) No exercise program is universal. Something so general as to be for everyone is probably for no one.
2) Not everything is about weight loss. (And maybe nothing should be about weight loss.)
3) People like Dr. Oz will absolutely claim false shit just to make money from you. It's dastardly, but some people are dastards.
Intentional Gaslight #1)
Presenting an exercise, workout, or fitness plan as being useful for everyone.
In scratching for readership wherever it can be found, publications and influencers are loath to narrow down a target reader. They know that leading with "Ab workout for 45 year old women with multiple c-section pregnancies" is bound to eliminate many of their readers and Like clicks. We, self-centered creatures that we are, tend to like and share stuff that is about us in some way, and publications know this. If they call it Seven Minute Abs without saying whose abs, they can try to capture an entire audience. Never mind that an ab workout for a post-cesarean woman/80 year old man/D1 track runner would all be entirely different.
Be automatically suspicious of any post or blog that says "This is a drill for everyone!!!" It doesn't mean it's useless, but it probably means that it needs to be better tailored to you.
Posts like this are ultra-generally titled, Squats!!!! and they cannot target you directly because there are too many variables like...
what kind of squat?
what kind of depth?
what kind of stance?
If it's not ultra general, then it's a more specific drill which means it's not for everyone.
Some of this is inevitable. Social media can't talk to any individual. It's guaranteed that some version of what's being posted can be helpful for everyone. But without all the previous questions answered, it's just guessing as to which one is the right one for YOU.
How To Correct For It!
Look for posts and trainers who indicate:
*Why someone may need the presented exercise
*For whom it might be terrible or harmful
*An easier alternative, and
*A more difficult alternative
Look for online voices that give you explanations and options, not just one "perfect" move.
You might be thinking "OK, Over-reacter (I recently got called an over-reacter online and I am so excited about it), but surely a squat isn't really all that different? Surely I can just do the squat I'm being told to do by someone with a great ass and it'll help in some way?"
Surely. You can do this. For your starting point, here are two different kinds of squats. Add both of these into your workout tomorrow:
These are both squats, but the reality is that both of these are utterly inappropriate for you. More than likely, the first one is way too easy (I use it for people who haven't bent their knees in 25 years), the second is way too hard (it's so niche I wouldn't give it to almost anyone), but they're both squats. Plus I could caption each of these examples with SUPER USEFUL SQUAT EXERCISE! and technically be totally correct.
So if you're really looking to make some changes in your body, it's important to become more discerning than just, "This squat seems fine." You need to find the kind of squat that challenges you, and I'll go more into this in Part Two. (I can feel the collective anticipatory breath hold.)
Intentional Gaslight #2)
Taking any exercise and framing it as something that can help with weight loss.
Now this makes me maaaaaaad. I don't actively promote any kind of weight loss message but as someone who unequivocally supports bodily autonomy and bodily direction, I'll support someone who wants to lose weight. That said, I (and millions of other progressive trainers) am really fucking sick of everything in fitness being tied to how well it can help you lose weight.
Publications and influencers know that weight loss sells. So a lot of people earn a lot of money by making their clients feel guilty and ashamed for being overweight. I'll never forget the weight-loss nutritionist I saw speaking at a prestigious NSCA event. She opened her lecture with, "Obesity is a huge problem in the US. I mean you go to Disney World now and look around and you're like, 'Did I somehow end up at SeaWorld?!'"
(You should have heard the uncomfortable semi-laughter that went around the room. My partner had to hog-tie me from shooting my arm up during Q&A and asking, "Do your clients know that you go to conferences and compare them to whales?" I was livid. I tried to find her afterwards to talk with her privately but could not find her. I'm sure it would have gone well.)
We know that the weight loss message is still king in the most mainstream fitness worlds. Which means that someone could sell sitting on a chair and farting if they told you it would help you lose weight at the same time. You actually see this all the time when you start looking for it. "Chia seeds for weight loss," "Do this back stretch to instantly look ten pounds thinner," "Is this ankle problem preventing you from finally losing the weight?"
Because we tie absolutely everything in fitness to
fat loss, people think that any activity which
doesn't cause weight loss is
Here's the thing about why the weight loss message is super tired and defunct. The world of fitness is HUGE. And INTERESTING. It is loaded with useful concepts and ideas which don't have anything to do with your weight, but do have something to do with making you feel or move better. By tying absolutely everything in fitness to fat loss, people begin to think that if they haven't lost weight, the work was pointless. And that, dear readers, is a brutal loss for the poor person who feels like a failure and also stops moving.
I know people think exercise isn't complicated. They think all workouts are the same. If I attend a five day conference for work, there's always someone who can't believe that there can be enough fitness info to last for five days. Last year I published an article about pistol squats and a client said to me, "You're kidding. What on earth is there to write for a whole article about pistol squats?"
I could write a book about pistol squats. But the better question to ask is, WHY do people think that fitness is so one note and simple?
It's because the biggest media outlets cannot cover any aspect of fitness without tying it to weight. Resistance training? Could help you lose weight! Cardio training? Great for weight loss! Stretching routine? Burns calories! Power yoga? Watch the fat melt away!
Fitness seems monotone because it is portrayed specifically and intentionally as one means (move) with one end (weight control) and that's it. The more you look out for this, the more you'll be able to recognize it.
How To Correct For It!
All of this to say that health and fitness is FULL of things that have nothing to do with losing weight. You don't have to eat chia seeds to lose weight. You can eat chia seeds because they're a complete source of protein, or because the Omega-3s might help battle depression, or simply because you like them. You can improve your ankle mobility without ever even thinking about the scale. Do the back stretch because it makes your back hurt less, not because it makes you look thinner.
Don't get sucked into exercises just because they promise wild weight changes. There is NO singular exercise that will change your weight in any meaningful direction. Instead, choose exercises that sound like they will solve a specific problem, pain, or deficiency that you have.
Intentional Gaslight #3)
Assigning a deliberately false claim that sounds really good.
Oooooooh, lord, these people are the worst. Many of the people who commit crimes 1 and 2 are doing it because their first concern is their business, and if they mislead people on the way, so be it. But the False Claimers are straight up assholes. They KNOW they're spouting garbage but that if they package it well, vulnerable people will buy it. I saw one recently where a fitness account with more than a MILLION followers posted a video about how wearing high waist leggings could "turn your abs off" and that you should roll them down to avoid "inhibiting ab contraction."
I won't link to it so they won't get more views on the page, but imagine if evolution had made us so that our muscles turn to jelly when we put clothes on?
Why would any professional claim something this dumb? Because running a large fitness account translates into power and influence. They know that they're lying, and they also know that easy "solutions" attract/maintain hopeful followers who can't or don't know the difference.
I never knew I would need to write this sentence, but putting on clothes is not going to turn off your muscles. Your muscles don't turn off unless the nerves that supply them have died. Ok?
Dr. Oz is another one. A classic false claimer who literally had to testify in front of the Senate to defend his bullshit. He is absolute garbage. But guess what? He has a net worth of $100 million. That's right. One Hundred Million Dollars of profiting from desperate people. He's famous and he's got outstanding MD credentials, so people think he must be trustworthy. He's not.
How To Correct For It!
Beware anyone selling supplements (I don't care what their credentials are), trainers selling nutrition products and programs (we're trainers, not nutritionists), anything about super fast results (almost nothing works this way because science), anything that sounds too good to be true (like waistlines of pants and ab strength), anything that says zero effort required (LMAO), and anything being sold to help you lose weight (already covered). Look instead for someone offering to help one part of you feel better, one part of you to move better, or exercise as a force field against pain, stiffness, and stress.
So this was all of the intentional bullshit people love to propagate about fitness. Part two is going to look at some of the unintentional ways that exercise gets misunderstood, misconstrued, or simply glossed over in media. And, obvs, all the ways that you can start narrowing down your search for quality fitness content online. And, as ever, I promise to bring a seriously good gif game. See you there.