Question. What do former U.S. President Warren Harding and Tracy Anderson have in common?
They’re both examples of what happens when we assume someone is competent because they look the part, even when their actions and words prove otherwise.
If you aren’t familiar with Warren Harding, many historians consider him among the worst presidents in United States history. He wasn’t very smart and was known to have a taste for gambling, booze and women. He was ambivalent about politics. He actually missed the debates for the biggest political issues of his day – women’s suffrage and prohibition.
Though he was better suited as a frat boy, Harding looked the part of a good president. He was tall, attractive, and likable, which was enough to get him elected.
In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses how we possess an unconscious bias that causes us to assume competency based on what a person looks like, instead of what they know. Gladwell coined this bias the “Warren Harding Error.”
Sadly, this particular brand of unconscious bias is not uncommon and it happens a lot in fitness.
Enter Tracy Anderson. A tiny, tan, blonde fitness “expert” to the stars. She preys on the insecurities and desires of women and tells them that if they follow her program, they can join her elite fitness cult of women with “dancer” bodies.
Anderson is the master of fitness buzzwords and will happily tell you exactly what you want to hear – even if it’s complete B.S. She’s conventionally attractive and sounds confident enough that if you don’t think about what she’s saying, you might believe that she holds the secrets to flat abs and long, lean muscles.
Unfortunately, it’s all a scam. The Tracy Anderson Method doesn’t work. Anderson doesn’t have a kinesiology-based education. Last I checked, she appears to hold no accredited fitness certifications, and everything she preaches and teaches defies basic science about how the human body works.
Anderson has been quoted as saying that lifting any weight over three pounds will injure you and give you bulky muscles. She also claims that you can spot reduce fat in trouble zones. All of these fitness myths that have been long disproven. She also recommends eating as little as 500 calories per day until you reach your goal weight, which is dangerous and creates a breeding ground for disordered eating and eating disorders.
So if you’re here to find out if the Tracy Anderson method is worth it, I would say no. Save your money, protect your mental health, and seek out help from a qualified professional in the fitness and / or nutrition space.
With that, you might be wondering, if the Tracy Anderson Method doesn’t work, what does?
This is a nuanced answer that depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
If your goal is to build strength with less pain or fewer injuries, you’d be far better off strength training than doing fast paced bodyweight exercises with complicated choreography.
If your goal is to get “toned,” this would be required through building at least a little bit of muscle and oftentimes fat loss, because you’d need to get your body fat percentage low enough to see it.
To do this, you would need to do two things:
- Start strength training to build muscle or at the very least protect against muscle loss, which may happen depending on the length and severity of a caloric deficit.
- Find a way to achieve a moderate caloric deficit, which for most people requires reducing their caloric intake (though this doesn’t have to mean counting calories. This is something I often help my nutrition coaching clients with!) and increasing low grade activity – usually through walking at an easy to moderate pace.
Another note on pursuing intentional weight loss and caloric deficits. If you decide to do. this make sure you take lots of breaks where you eat at maintenance to reduce dieting burnout and allow your body to recover. Caloric deficits are stressful, not fun, and you shouldn’t be in one forever.
I could write more, but that’s the greatest hits. Getting “toned” is a somewhat mundane process if you do it thoughtfully. It doesn’t require ANY of the extreme measures that Tracy Anderson advocates. And frankly intentional weight loss isn’t a great goal for a lot of people – though I fully support doing what you want with your body. I just don’t believe it should come at the cost of your mental and physical health.
To put it another way, please don’t exercise for hours on end while eating a toddler’s amount of food in meal replacement bars. There’s a way to do this where you can exercise a moderate amount and continue eating foods you enjoy.
TLDR: Tracy Anderson has packaged up a starvation diet with exercises designed to make you exhausted instead of strong. If you love her stuff, do your thing, but I think there are a lot of better ways that you could spend your time to actually improve your health, foster a positive relationship with food and exercise, and move closer towards your goals.
I also think that Tracy Anderson is just ONE example of a much bigger problem that exists in the fitness industry.
Tracy Anderson represents a lie that much of the fitness industry is built on – the idea that if someone looks fit, they will be a competent trainer with the ability to make you look like them.
Consider why someone might be able to look a certain way with little knowledge or effort. Part of it is genetics. Some people have genes that predispose them to looking naturally muscular or lean.
One example is professional dancers, who tend to have long, lean limbs and tiny waists. It’s easy to look at them and think that dance gave them their bodies, because they all have the same body type.
We have it backwards though. The reality is that we are only seeing the people who made it to the elite levels of dance, which historically refuses to hire or cast larger bodied dancers.
Yes, these elite dancers are talented and have worked really hard. Yes, their rigorous training schedule certainly will help them maintain some of their physical aesthetic. However, a large part of what got them to the elite level was that they had the ideal body type to be a professional dancer.
Even if they had chosen a completely different sport like powerlifting or they did close to nothing, with reasonable nutrition, odds are that many of these people would still have a stereotypical “dancer’s body” – though I do feel a need to point out that this degree of thinness may also be due to unhealthy and extreme caloric restriction in combination with genetics.
Bringing it back to fitness, how many workouts have we seen, including Tracy Anderson’s method, that claim to give you a dancer’s body? Hundreds? Entire dance fitness franchises have made a killing selling this lie.
Are these workouts necessarily bad? Depending on the context, one of these workouts or methods *might* change your appearance, but given that they rely on very light weights, it’s frankly unlikely – though they may help with muscle endurance, balance, or flexibility.
However, the reality is that if you’re built to look strong, curvy, or anything that isn’t a lithe ballerina, no workout is going to make you look that way. It’s just genetics. And that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your body – despite our dumpster fire culture telling you otherwise.
Any trainer or studio owner who claims that their workout can give everyone the same body type is either lying to you or painfully misinformed.
Maybe it’s overkill, but I want to point out that “body type casting” also occurs when fitness videos are made. The people who are hired are literally fitness models who are paid to perform the workout on stage, sending the message that if you perform the workout, you can look like them.
It’s an illusion.
These fitness models are at least in part genetically gifted as described above and / or they are probably doing a lot of hypertrophy and strength workouts and have a very intense, difficult to sustain, diet plan to go with it that may include some very disordered behaviors around food.
Regardless, whatever workout they are selling is most likely not responsible for the body that they are displaying. The models on the screen were hired because of what they looked like, not because they were knowledgeable.
We need to use critical thinking instead of our eyes when choosing a workout or hiring someone for fitness or nutrition help.
Fitness marketing relies on extrinsic motivation and half-truths. Just because a girl in a crop-top claims her workout is functional, safe way to lose belly fat doesn’t mean it is. For all we know, it’ll be comprised of flailing arm movements better designed to give you chronic neck pain.
Things to consider when you’re ready to hire someone or purchase a program:
- Does this person have a degree in the subject matter they’re teaching?
- Who mentored them? What was their education? Are they certified? Granted a lot of certifications are bullshit.
- Does what they claim make sense or has it been scientifically disproven?
- Are they providing education to help you make informed choices? Or are they scaring you into buying from them?
- Do they seem like an empathetic, reasonable human? Do you like them?
- Is their advice practical? Could you easily introduce what they teach into your life without drastic changes?
I understand why fitness marketing often relies on sound bites and wild claims.
An ad that says, “Slowly alter your body composition and built strength through moderate changes in your diet and intelligent programming over several months to years” isn’t nearly as compelling as “Get shredded AF!” or “Finally get that toned, dancer body you always dreamed of FAST!”
There are many paths to fitness. Some programs will work better that others depending on your goals and how your body responds to exercise.
I didn’t write this to say that people with “conventional fitness bodies” aren’t knowledgeable. Some of them are! However, looking the part won’t always equate with competency.
Likewise, not all workouts with questionable marketing are bad, but the claims may not be realistic. This knowledge may prevent you from spending money and time on something that would other leave you feeling frustrated and defeated.