Question – What do former U.S. President Warren Harding and “Fitness Guru” Tracy Anderson have in common?
They are both prime examples of what happens when we assume someone is competent simply because they look the part, even if their actions and words prove otherwise.
If you aren’t familiar with Warren Harding, many historians consider him the worst president in United States history. He wasn’t very smart and was known to have a taste for gambling, booze and women. At best, he was ambivalent about politics. Harding 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, dark, handsome and had a likable personality. Despite his lack of political savvy, this 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 (or incompetency) based on what a person looks like, instead of what they know. Gladwell coined this bias the “Warren Harding Error.”
Sadly, it’s 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 cult of uber petite women with “dancer” bodies.
Anderson is the master of fitness buzzwords and gimmicks. She looks the part 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 a thigh gap.
Unfortunately, it’s all a scam. The Tracy Anderson Method doesn’t work. Anderson doesn’t have a kinesiology-based education. She holds no accredited fitness certification, and everything she preaches and teaches is scientifically wrong.
Anderson claims that lifting any weight over three pounds will give you bulky muscles and that you can spot reduce fat in trouble zones. Both are 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 I suppose would work if you really really liked spinach.
Clearly, I don’t like Tracy Anderson. I could write a dissertation on how, at best her method is ineffective. At worst it is unsustainable, promotes disordered eating and injury. I’m not going to though, because while I have a lot of issues with Tracy Anderson, I think she 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. Yes, they are talented, and their rigorous training schedule certainly will help them maintain physical attributes. 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 power lifting or they did close to nothing, with reasonable nutrition, odds are they would still have a stereotypical “dancer’s body”.
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? Dozens? Hundreds? Entire dance fitness franchises have made a killing selling this lie.
Are these workouts necessarily bad? No. If they’re designed intelligently, they might change your appearance. They might help you gain muscle, make you stronger or provide a number of other fitness benefits. However, 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.
Any trainer or studio owner who tells you otherwise is lying to you.
The same thing happens when fitness videos are made. Desired body types, be it men and women who are ripped or women who are very thin are type cast to perform the workout on stage, sending the message that if you perform the workout, you can look like them.
It’s an illusion. One of two things has happened to give them that body. Either they are genetically gifted as described above, or they worked their butts off for several hours a day and had a very intense, difficult to sustain diet plan to go with it.
Regardless, whatever workout they are selling probably didn’t give them 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 a trainer. 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 arm fat doesn’t mean it is. For all we know, it will be comprised of flailing arm movements better designed to give you chronic neck pain.
Instead, investigate the person’s educational background.
- Do they have a degree in the subject matter that they are claiming to be an expert in?
- Who have they trained under?
- Who are they certified through?
- Is what they are saying make sense or has it been scientifically disproven?
I understand why much of the marketing in the fitness industry relies on sound bites and gimmicks. An ad that says, “Achieve a healthy body composition and strength gains through moderate diet and intelligently applied exercise” doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as “Get shredded like a warrior!”
Ultimately, there are many paths to fitness and some programs will work better depending on what your goals are. It’s important to keep in mind that what a person looks like may not tell you if they are a knowledgeable trainer or if they can get you results.
I didn’t write this to say that fitness professionals with idealized forms aren’t knowledgeable and can’t be trusted. Some of them are brilliant practitioners. However, it’s important to note that looking the part doesn’t always equate with competency.
Likewise, not all programs that rely on marketing gimmicks are bad, but some of what they claim may not be realistic and fitness is comprised of far more than what you look like. A little skepticism may save you from spending money and time on a program that could leave you injured or feeling frustrated and defeated.
*Side note, if you want a balanced criticism of Tracy Anderson’s methodology you can check it out here.