Are Celebrity Trainers Making People Fat?
By Amanda Vogel, M.A.
How fitness pros can respond to sensational claims and inaccurate reporting about exercise in the mainstream media.
If it’s not a magazine or newspaper article about how indoor cycling (or running or any type of exercise) makes you fat (or too hungry, or both!), it’s a television segment featuring a “trainer to the stars” advising women against lifting any weight that’s heavier than a curling iron.
At one time or another, most of us in the fitness industry have put up with hearing about preposterous promises and revolutionary celebrity-endorsed programs popularized by mainstream media. Sometimes you just shrug it off as a silly spin on the truth. Other times, you might find yourself battling a firestorm of reckless misinformation as clients come at you with questions about a weird new health claim or quick-fix Hollywood workout they saw on TV or Facebook.
Where do credible and certified fitness professionals fit into this media circus? There are many ways we can respond to—and move beyond—inaccuracies and differences of opinion about exercise that are propped up in the media as “the latest and greatest” health news. This article explores how.
Speak Out, or Stay Out of It?
Much of what appears in the popular media does mesh with what many fitness experts believe and teach to their own clients. For example, your clients might hear about the same research study from both you and the evening news. Plenty of qualified, reliable fitness professionals also happen to be public figures, and some train celebrities. Many appear in the media, sharing accurate and useful health and fitness content with the public. Positive, correct information gets press. However, all the outlandish claims, sensational stories, misquotes and general “hack” advice tend to make the biggest waves, confusing people and ruffling feathers. What to do? Should fitness pros spend valuable time debunking media-driven misinformation when it arises? Or, is it better to ignore the hype and do our own thing? A lot of industry leaders point to the former. “Ignoring ridiculous ideas doesn’t necessarily make them go away,” says personal trainer Joe Stankowski, owner of Smart Way Enterprises in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Jennifer Sage is the founder of, and a master instructor for, the Indoor Cycling Association in Eagle, Colo. She’s written numerous articles and delivered presentations refuting the inaccurate claims and gimmicks surrounding indoor cycling that she sees propagated in the media. “I absolutely believe fitness professionals should stand up for what is scientifically correct. Turning a blind eye is tantamount to condoning it,” she says.
Exercise science professor Michele Olson, Ph.D., agrees that it’s our responsibility in the fitness industry to “promote the truths.” Not only can it help prevent injury, she says, but it also saves fitness consumers from making bad decisions and getting disappointed with exercise because, of course, there is no magic quick-fix to getting fit. First, focus a little energy on explaining what’s askew with the message you’re hearing. “Take the time to dispel the myths with simple-to-understand, yet accurate information so that the ‘truth’ you speak becomes un-debatable,” says Olson, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine who teaches at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. Then steer the conversation toward “real life” fitness. “Offer the solution (the proper way) to achieve any claim—such as how you can, actually, add a pound of muscle or most efficiently increase your cardio fitness,” she says. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers numerous research studies on its website that you can refer your clients to for more information.
Keli Roberts—a master trainer for BOSU® and Schwinn® and an ACE media spokesperson based in Los Angeles—leverages her time in front of the participants who come to her popular fitness classes by taking aim at dubious fitness trends and overblown media messages. “I feel responsible for making sure the right message gets out there,” she says. “That’s why I use the class cool-down as a time to educate and highlight specific topics I come across in magazines. My students love this! I often approach these talks with humor and a sense of fun so they can see the stupidity of [these] messages.”
“Can you imagine if engineers, accountants, dentists or physicians held themselves to the level of fitness professionals, where they could say what they wanted and promote anything to their patients and clients? And if anything went horribly wrong, they were not held accountable?” asks Dean Somerset of Edmonton, Alberta, a personal trainer, author, speaker and Medical and Rehabilitation Coordinator for World Health Club. “We owe it to ourselves as professionals to raise the bar to ensure that wild and outlandish claims are not tolerated and that we have the adequate resources to provide realistic education to our clients, the population at large, and also to other trainers who may fall victim to these lines of thought to promote to their clients.”
Somerset sees speaking out as a good forum for learning and discussion about industry consensus and best practices. But sometimes—as instructor Jennifer Galardi has discovered—you’ve got to pick your battles for your own peace of mind. “At times I'm compelled to get on the bully pulpit and shout out on Facebook that ‘So-and-So is ridiculous!’ and ‘How can people be so blinded by misinformation?’ I've been the center of heated commentary out there in Cyberland,” she says. “Other times, I take the path of least resistance and remind myself that I'll attract the right client for me. I am trying to spend less time getting sucked into debates on the Internet.” Galardi is the owner of livWhole and Wellness Director at Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa in Austin, Texas.
Talk the Talk…When Needed
One the biggest challenges fitness pros face when educating the public about basic lifestyle choices and health and wellness is the mainstream media’s savvy for packaging content so it sounds a lot easier and “sexier” (if not farfetched) compared to boring old advice like eat well and exercise on most days of the week. A magazine story that tells its readers to “Do this celebrity trainer’s new exercise/workout/method/system and you’ll get X results in X days” holds appeal for the average person who might not relish exercise but still wants to look and feel fit—as soon as possible!
“Unfortunately people will always look for direct answers to complex problems, especially when it comes to exercise and looking awesome,” says Somerset. “If a product or service was able to say that instead of spending three to five hours a week at a gym that you could get the abs of your dreams in only eight minutes, it’s incredibly appealing—at least until someone comes along with seven-minute abs.”
We can’t control what a celebrity trainer puts out there as “proven” programming for popular media outlets to lap up and perpetuate. But we can play an important role with our own networks—both in person and via social media. “Building relationships with clients and students is key,” says Galardi. “Your clients need to have trust in you so that when you refute what they may hear in the media, your advice is paramount.”
“I do my best to appeal to [my clients’] common sense and innate wisdom,” adds Galardi, who has worked with high-profile clients, media and brands, including Nautilus® and Xbox. “Usually, when you get down to their core values, they are better able to assess the real reasons they work out/diet/eat well or poorly. They can then begin to evaluate if their lifestyle choices are congruent with what they really believe.” This self-reflection isn’t always the easiest route, she admits, but it helps trainers and instructors create long-term client relationships that aren’t built on a fleeting promise of “flat abs in a flash.”
“When it comes down to it, all that any of us are really saying is: Eat right and exercise,” says Stankowski. “The big difference is that we each have our own way of interpreting and verbalizing that grandmotherly advice. Exercises/methods/workouts are just tools. None are better or worse than any others until put within context. For example, is a hammer a ‘good’ tool? Not if you need to remove a screw! Some tools have greater versatility than others.” While Sage observes that many of the best workouts and training programs usually don't have the “sexy names” or, as with indoor cycling, tons of new movement variety, there’s no reason why exercising properly and safely can’t get the mainstream publicity it deserves.
Olson—who is frequently quoted in the popular media and has modeled her own research-backed workouts in Self, Fitness and other major magazines—advises fitness pros to examine how media messaging works (regardless of the message itself). If you’d like to share basic messages about health and fitness with the general public, “learn to work in the language of sound-bites,” she says. “Boil down the message and info into clean, bullet-like points and keep it simple. For example, you get A, B and C by doing A, B and C.” The language of ABC’s doesn’t have to be gimmicky, false or full of half-truths.
What’s Your Platform?
We don’t all get to say our piece in a major magazine article or national television spot. Truth is, some trainers will get a lot of airplay and most won’t. You might agree with some media messages and disagree with others. Fortunately, the potential to create or strengthen your own communication platforms, however big or small, is within your reach—whether it’s educating clients in person, getting media coverage of your own, blogging or posting to social media. “We all have unique stories and experiences that become part of our professional voices,” says Stankowski. “Blogging, status updates and media opportunities (e.g., radio, TV, print) make it possible for us to share our own interpretations of ‘eat right and exercise.’”
Last year, numerous blog rants and Facebook posts went up after an article was published in Harper’s Bazaar magazine called, “Is Spinning Making You Fat?” Sage was interviewed for and quoted in that article. After it was published, she was able to use social media and blogging to explain why she felt she was misquoted and to provide further context to the article’s claims. “Ninety-five percent of the comments I got back from cycling instructors were positive,” she says. When Time ran a story in 2009 called, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” fitness authorities—including ACE—quickly went online rebutting the article’s misleading assertions about exercise.
Roberts—who has been featured as a fitness expert in national magazines and on TV—turns to social media as a platform for greater awareness. “I recently posted [a link to] an interview with a celebrity trainer on Facebook that created quite a stir. I urged fitness pros to share the article I posted, and many did. I also urged fitness pros to write to the editor of a popular magazine that employs a celebrity trainer as their expert. A number of fitness pros did this as well.”
“The most amazing thing about the internet, social media and the use of personal blogs,” says Somerset, “is that it reduces the geographical limitations of face-to-face communication that may only allow me to speak directly with a small handful of people on a daily basis about a specific topic. [Social media] makes the resultant audience infinitely larger. I’ve written a number of articles where current clients will come up to me and say how they’ve been wondering about that specific topic, but forget to ask me when they see me what my thoughts are on it. It helps explain things in a way that can be returned to as often as needed and shared to their own circles.”
When taking to the Web to jump on a media story that doesn’t sit right with you, remember that what you post is a reflection of your knowledge and professional identity. “Social media now allows everyone to have a voice,” says Galardi. “Make sure that voice is clear, wise and compassionate.”
Together, our collective voice is strong. “We all have a responsibility to make sure that the people whose lives we touch get the right information,” says Roberts. “Social media, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and such can start a small storm if we take action. Instead of sitting quietly and feeling frustrated, we can make a difference and speak out.”
Amanda Vogel, M.A., human kinetics, is a self-employed fitness pro and writer. In addition to being a HootSuite Ambassador and social media consultant for fitness brands and public figures, Amanda owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She blogs at www.FitnessTestDrive.com and has contributed to numerous magazines, including SELF, Reader’s Digest Canada, Oxygen and Women’s Health. You can reach her at www.ActiveVoice.ca @amandavogel (Twitter) and @amandavogelfitness (Instagram).