I originally started blogging, because I wanted to help correct some of the misinformation floating around on the web about fitness and provide better information on how to move and prevent injury.
Overall, it’s been a great experience. It’s let me share information and it’s opened up my world to an entire community of people who share my values and also want to improve the fitness industry.
It’s also made me very aware of the presence fitness gurus. Fitness gurus are often poorly educated and/or dangerously misinformed, but well-known fitness professionals. They tend to sell programs and diets that have no scientific basis that at best are ineffective and at worst are injurious and physically or psychologically harmful.
Despite their lack of scientific (and often logical) reasoning, it is easy for these gurus to become self-proclaimed experts and gain a large following, because they tend to be incredibly charismatic, persuasive and attractive. They tell people what they want to hear. They claim to have the solution or the secret answer to your problem and while there are no real diet or fitness secrets to the universe, these wild claims make for sexy marketing.
Freelee the banana girl is a prime example of a guru in the fitness industry. She’s young, thin and pretty. She smiles all the time and says nice things about being your best self. She has a compelling story about how she used to be overweight and got her health and her body back. She claims that she has the secret to getting the body you want.
Now this wouldn’t necessarily be bad, except her “secret” to a hot bod and endless energy is bonkers and dangerous. She claims that you should become a “fruitarian” and eat 50 bananas today. No protein, no fats. All carbs, all fruit, all the time.
Now if you’re like me, you don’t need to dig very deep to realize that this girl has Fruit Loops for brains. However, this chick has over 240K Instagram followers and people believe her. They’re buying her products and following her diet, often to the detriment of their health.
Freelee is an extreme example of a guru, but she certainly isn’t alone. There are hundreds of popular fitness gurus selling and profiting off of bad information in the form of injurious workouts, weight loss shakes and fad diets.
Of course, there are also plenty of people in the fitness and nutrition fields who are highly qualified and give safe and sane advice. So why do people fall for this and why are they turning to people like Tracy Anderson and the Banana Girl instead of educated fitness pros and registered dietitians?
There are a few reasons.
1. Nutrition and exercise science are extremely complicated and it’s hard to figure out what’s legit if you aren’t already educated in the subject.
Seriously. I have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and I’ve spent the better part of a decade studying anatomy, human movement and bodywork. Scientific studies still make my eyes cross and nearly every technical article I’ve written required that I pour over several textbooks to confirm that I had my facts straight.
Most fad diet and exercise programs have aspects of legitimate science weaved into unfounded theories surrounded by big words, so when gurus explain their methods, they can sound really smart. However, you can sound smart and still be incorrect.
If you don’t have advanced knowledge of the topic, it’s difficult to tell who is right and if the person has a large following and a strong presence in the media, then it’s easy to assume that their information is legitimate.
2. These programs will work in the short-term.
It’s more complicated than this, but most fad diets will result in a caloric deficit and a caloric deficit is what it takes to lose weight, so initially, most diets will result in weight loss.
The problem is that this is not sustainable in the long run due to a series of biological, neurological and hormonal changes that take place when someone diets, as covered by this article in the Washington Post. So when a guru says their diet works, it very well might! However, it’s generally only for the short term.
The same principle applies to exercise. When you are new to exercise, practically anything you do will give you short-term results and if you hit it hard and fast, then you may see results a little quicker.
However, upping the intensity too quickly often leads to injury, which in turn can sideline you from exercise. On the flip side, if the program you’ve picked isn’t all that physiologically sound, but is designed to make you feel sore, for example pulsing for an hour with a 2 lb dumbbell, then you may see short term results, but will experience a plateau effect in the long run.
3. These people look the part and tell you what you want to hear.
I wrote an article on this topic and Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink has an entire chapter on the science behind this, but the short of it is that our brain likes to make snap judgments based on what we see. It’s called thin slicing and the problem is that our eyes can deceive us.
This happens a lot in the fitness industry. If we see someone who looks fit and sounds authoritative, then we subconsciously assume that they are an authority on fitness. Of course this could be true, but a large part of what we look like is determined by genetics and the reality is that you can be strong, healthy and armed with advanced knowledge and not have a six-pack.
Alternatively, the person with the six-pack can be suffering from disordered eating or a myriad of injuries and the program that they’re selling might not be what they have done to get the body they’re sporting.
An example of this is workout DVDs like P90x where the company hires fitness models to do their workouts on the videos, but those fitness models have a very specific diet and training regimen that looks nothing like what they are being filmed to do.
Beyond that, there is a large psychological element to this. Our brain wants a fast fix and it gets a nice hit of dopamine when we impulse buy a program believing that this time it will work.
So what really works?
The reality is that we don’t need a guru or an iron will to meet our health and fitness goals. We also don’t need some restrictive diet and insane workout routine to achieve health. We just need common sense, a commitment to gradual habit change and some basic information on how to eat and move.
Now if you are someone who does better with community and accountability, by all means, find a professional to help you on your journey, because there are a lot of wonderful professionals out there and we want to help you!
Just consider the source from where you are getting your information. If you go to a trainer, they should be giving you movement advice – not diet advice, which should be left to a nutritionist and vice versa.
If the advice is extreme – i.e. cutting out entire food groups, spending hours a day in the gym or pushing though injury and pain – then this person does not have your best interest at heart. Likewise, if they tell you that they have the secret to abs/a thigh gap/ect, they’re probably lying to you, because spot reduction isn’t a thing and only eating bananas will not give you muscles.
Exercise shouldn’t require putting yourself in chronic pain and how you eat shouldn’t induce a food phobia. Admittedly, this is a slower way to do things, but it is also a more sustainable way that will lead to lasting change.
The choice is yours.