‘It’s intoxicating- I became obsessed’: has fitness gone too far?

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With seven-day gym classes and unregulated instructors on Instagram, is our craving for exercise get dangerous?

Lisa Andrews was looking for a quick fitness fixing. The 34 -year-old had” a little bit of weight to lose” a year after having her first newborn and, being both time-poor and on a budget, she decided to do it with the help of an online 12 -week training programme she’d seen advertised on Facebook.” There were hundreds of transformations on there ,” Lisa tells me.” I was so excited to start. The program had several different levels so you could begin at whatever level you thought worked for you. Stupidly, I picked intermediate. It was really challenging, with daily sets of high-intensity exercises, and I would frequently feel exhausted and altogether out of breath by the end of it- but I was on a high. As I got fitter, I began to really love the training. I looked forward to it, talked about it all the time, got friends to sign up. I became quite evangelical. Sometimes I’d even do two sessions a day. I’d skip other activities to work out- because if I had to miss a conference, I’d feel depressed and fretted it would derail my progress .”

But when” niggling aches” in her feet and ankles developed into something more severe, Lisa was unable to go to work. An X-ray had reaffirmed that she had stress fractures in two places in her foot. Bound up in a big boot-like aircast, she struggled to walk for weeks and was told to avoid any weight-bearing training for months, until the bones have fully healed.” I had become obsessed ,” she says now.” I was completely into it and the’ community’ of people online doing the same thing. I’d be on Instagram all the time, looking at other people’s transformations. I do feel silly. I should know better- but it is psychologically intoxicating .”

Using Instagram, blogs and YouTube to get fit is fast becoming de rigueur. And despite getting collectively fatter and more sedentary, the British expend record sums of fund exerting. Figures from the 2017 UK State of the Fitness Industry report show that the sector is worth more than PS4. 7bn annually- up more than 6% on the year before. A quick search for the #fitspo hashtag on Instagram brings up almost 47 million images- people in workout gear lifting weights, close-ups of ultra-defined abs, bulbous biceps, “transformation” pictures( taken before and after fat loss)- each one advocating a programme more punishing than the last.

These days, hardcore fitness sells. Even Nike, which constructed its name with that inclusive Just Do It tagline, has taken to lambasting joggers in its latest advertising campaign:” If You Like It Slow, Jog On”, or” You Win Some Or You Win Some”, proclaim its new billboards. Gyms run” go hard” promotions, with discounted packages for those taking up limitless classes for short periods of day, such as 10 classes in 10 days- the kind of training that many dub” binge workouts “.

But nowhere is full-on training more powerfully advocated than on social media, where inspirational quotes such as” Pain is Weakness Leaving The Body” and” Sweat Is Your Fat Crying” are liked and shared millions of days. In the age of “wellth”, a well-honed tricep is more desirable than the latest pair of designer shoes. The so-called world of “fitspo” began as a niche route for gym nerds to share tips-off and document how their bodies changed, before spreading into a whole lifestyle movement. Instagram’s short videos lend themselves to fitness content; people started following routines in the gym.

Fitness movements have been around a long time- think back to Jane Fonda, The Green Goddess and Mr Motivator- but working out has become a lot more complex since the aerobic days, says Rick Miller, a clinical and athletics dietician.” Increasingly, there seems to be this feeling of,’ Why would I go for a gentle 5km jog or a moderate aerobic session when I can do a punishing high-intensity set ?'” he tells me over lunch. High-intensity training( mixing all-out explodes of activity with short remainders) get mixed reviews from health professionals: some swear by the fast outcomes, while many believe that unsupervised exercise of this kind can cause health problems.

” Many young person I ensure are altogether obsessed with Instagram fitness superstars ,” Miller says,” and they follow workouts from so-called trainers they don’t know, which may not be right for their body or their levels of fitness. Fitness athletes are superstars online, but their followers often try to develop at the standard of a professional athlete, without the core level of fitness. Following these kinds of workouts can very often lead to injury and burnout. Were I to recommend some of the things that fitness bloggers recommend- high levels of exert, nutritional advice- I would get struck off .”

The National Careers Service advises that training to become a fitness teacher can be done on the job at a gym, as an apprentice, or via a college course. Becoming a personal trainer( PT) is more advanced. PTs are usually self-employed, and they need insurance, first-aid train, an awareness of anatomy and physiology, and a qualification, which takes anything from six weeks to three months to achieves. Increasingly, trainers tell me, gyms are looking for another asset in their PTs: they want them to be photogenic, with a big social media following.

Zanna Van Dijk:’ When I look back at my old posts, I cringe .’ Photograph: Getty Images

Some Insta-fitness personalities have personal training qualifications, but many do not. Often, there is no way of telling who is developed and who isn’t, without asking them. Anyone with more than 100,000 followers, however, irrespective of their qualifications, is deemed an “influencer”, courted by brands eager to reach their followers. That’s a fact that rages many offline personal trainers, who was of the view that the unqualified yet famous ones devalue their profession.” Online programs want people to feel as if they have their own- affordable- personal trainer ,” one tells me.” As some of them are altogether unskilled and the programmes are really’ one size fits all ‘, current realities couldn’t be further from the truth. It makes reputable personal trainers seem outrageously expensive .”

It is a sentiment echoed by one health and beauty magazine editor, who asks to remain anonymous because her positions don’t tally with that of her employer.” These days, a strong Instagram following, good gene pool and even better spray tan can induce you a fitness superstar, regardless of what qualifications you have. Not merely do many of these’ fitness superstars’ know little about what constitutes safe workout( the truth is that no amount of likes come in handy when you need to solve a gym-induced trauma ), they also create a false sense of what fit and healthy looks like- and it doesn’t always appear 21 and great in a bikini. Add to that the fact that these social media stars get paid to change fitness gadgets, gimmicks and protein shakes, and you’ve a whole load of dangerously misguided adherents .”

No one would deny that people becoming more active is anything other than a good thing. Millennials claim to enjoy working out as much as going out; gyms have become stylish, social spaces where people expend their Friday nights and Saturday mornings, often doing back-to-back class. Spinning, boxing and hybrid cardio-barre workouts at city-centre-based studios often have waiting lists for evening or weekend conferences, when people would traditionally be kicking back with a drinking( fewer people aged between 16 and 24 beverage than ever before, in agreement with the Office of National Statistics ). Gyms are designed with sleek interiors and high-impact feature walls- all the better to post to Instagram.

And while the rest of the way sector fights, activewear- now not so much a genre of garb as a way of life, led by leggings and harvest tops- has become big business. Morgan Stanley forecasts the workout clothing sector to be worth $83 bn a year globally over the next three years. Gymwear is no longer old jogging bottoms or baggy T-shirts; it’s cut-outs and mesh- clothes you can wear all day, seven days a week.

It’s a warm Monday lunchtime and I am sitting next to a bread oven in a sourdough bakery in Battersea, south London. Where else to gratify a 24 -year-old qualified personal trainer and full-time fitness blogger? This is one of Zanna Van Dijk‘s favourite hangouts: when she’s not working out( or “socialing” herself doing so ), Van Dijk and her boyfriend run an Instagram account dedicated to where to find the best brunch. There is much deliberation about the type of alternative milk to be served with her americano. Later this afternoon, she tells me, she is getting the emblem for Earth tattooed on her wrist because,” I’m a vegetarian for countries around the world .”

Van Dijk is tall, about 6ft, and lean. She has long, blond hair, immaculate makeup and more than 180, 000 followers on Instagram. She examined speech therapy at Sheffield University, but after graduating went into fitness blogging full hour.” For me, fitness started as a route to lose my’ Fresher’s 15′[ a reference to the weight first-year university students can gain ]. I documented it, picked up 35,000 followers and didn’t know what to do with them. So I took a year off, endeavoured to London, started to work as a PT, made an income and forged the partnership agreement with brands. I did a six-week intensive course and got it sponsored, as long as I blogged about it. As my online profile grew, I reduced my own personal training work- now I train people one morning a week. Otherwise, I’m editing videos or blogposts- I do three of these each a week. I’ve written a book, I’ve brought out jumpers[ which say’ Coffee and carbs’ on them ], and I’m an Adidas diplomat .”

Van Dijk admits things were quite different when she was starting out.” When I look back at my old posts, I cringe. I guess:’ Gosh, you knew nothing! You had totally the wrong aim of the stick !’ I used to try and be super-lean, and now I really don’t care if I am lean or not- I want to be fit .” She breaks off to vlog, before we look through her Instagram demographics together.

” My following is 81% women, 19% humen ,” she says.” The biggest audience is 25- to 34 -year-olds, more older humen, more younger women, mostly London, mostly UK .” More older humen? Isn’t that a little bit creepy? Van Dijk doesn’t respond. Does she feel a responsibility to her adherents?” You want to be 100% honest and share everything, but the other day, I did a video where I indicated my body. It was all about self-confidence and self-love, which is what I am all about, but somebody commented:’ I just think this video is drawing attention to different people’s bodies and their appearances .’ That wasn’t its intention, that’s how it’s being perceived .”

Van Dijk argues that her adherents shouldn’t compare themselves with her.” It’s really hard. I train four days a week or maybe five ,” she says.” A lot of young girl will look at me and think:’ I want to look like she looks and I want to do what she does ,’ and that’s when I have to be so careful .”

In that sense, she feels she has to protect people from themselves.” If you’re someone who has a negative mindset or is in a vulnerable place, you can easily access material that you could use poorly. If you’re someone with an eating disorder or an obsession with workout, Instagram is not a good place to be .”

Celebrity trainer James Duigan( right ):’ There’s no guarantee you’re doing things right online’

How much responsibility do online trainers actually bear for people copying the workouts they recommend? Jean-Claude Vacassin, the founder of boutique London gym W10, is not a fan of fitness via social media or, as he words it “excer-train-ment”. ” What people see on social media is marketing ,” he tells me on the phone.” Extreme fitness sells, it’s exciting. It used to be that running a marathon was hardcore. Now, that’s not enough: you have to do a multi-day ultra-marathon. A lot of these online training regimes are aimed at millennials who want to buy on the first click and transform their body on the second- and they push themselves too hard. No one wants to spend eight weeks moving more and eating less these days because, sadly, people don’t believe basic exert, doing well, is going to get them anywhere. There’s this idea that it’s boring .” He quotes the case of a builder who got a deal with a supplement company because he works out a lot and has hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers.” But does that mean he knows what he’s doing? No! He’s a builder , not a personal trainer .”

Vacassin adds:” In our gym, we have gym criteria. People undergo an assessment before they get a programme. Hiit[ high intensity] training and complicated exercisings under wearines should not be in 90% of people’s fitness regimes because they don’t have the physical capability. These online accounts trick people into thinking this is easy. No one posts a bad workout. No one posts the workout they missed. No one posts the depression they have when they get injured or the relationships it costs them. All you see is the good stuff .”

Deep squats, lunges, deadlifts and high-intensity cardio are the mainstay of online workouts, and keep Cameron Tudor, owner of West London Physiotherapy, in business.” We’ve seen an increase in the numbers of clients coming to us having injured themselves doing online workouts ,” he says.” People get hurt largely because the message is:’ This is what I do and there’s no reason it won’t work for you .’ Extrapolated across the population, that’s not going to be good. While it’s a great thing that people are being encouraged to be active, if you’ve never lifted a barbell and then start lifting 10 kg, you’ll put your tissues at risk .” Part of their own problems, Tudor says, is in the age differences.” The trainers are usually in their early 20 s, but a lot of the people utilizing the programmes are mid-to-late 30 s and 40 s. That matters, because your tissues are far more resilient when you’re under 30.”

All exercise carries some risk of trauma, but the lack of supervision means that online programmes can carry more risk. Cara, 28, from Birmingham, was doing an online squats challenge when she damaged her sciatic nerve.” I am traversing about “whats happened to” me ,” she says,” but I’m not sure what anyone can do about it. It was my decision to do the programme. I merely didn’t know it wasn’t the right thing for me .”

Natalie Burley, 37, from Chichester, swapped daily sessions on her exercise bike for an online programme to regain some fitness after her second child. In her fifth week, she began experiencing knee pain.” A physio told me I’d inflamed the ligaments on the outside of my knee and I had to rest for six weeks. Now I have to wear a knee support .”

Fitness starrings themselves aren’t immune from both physical or emotional injuries as a result of their jobs. Van Dijk tells me she transgressed her hand doing box jumps last year. Fitness Instagrammer Queen City Sweat( nearly 50,000 adherents) wrote a post in June acknowledging she had become “addicted” to exert in 2016, blaming the pressures of social media.” It becomes so easy to start comparing yourself to others on here, which led me to develop a mindset of’ How skinny can I get ?’ rather than’ How healthy can I be ?'” she wrote.

According to a 2008 Journal of Health Psychology study, women reported an ever increasing negative mood, depression and nervousnes after merely 30 minutes of viewing fitness publications that promote an” athletic ideal “. Social media means you don’t have to buy a magazine to watch these images; they’re in your newsfeed. The BMJ has identified exercise craving as a growing problem, affecting up to 10% of the exercising population. Meanwhile, research from Flinders University in Australia found that online “fitspo” images largely depict the thin or athletic ideal for women or the muscular ideal for men which, says clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Orban, can lead to psychological problems, too.” Images insured on Instagram can represent one uniform, idealised standard of attractiveness- one not achievable to most young people .”

I ask celebrity personal trainer James Duigan if he has benefited from Instagram’s fitness culture. “Massively,” he says from his gym in west London.” Social media helped my business Bodyism, and I admit that. But I think there’s a difference between that and photos of people ad products and selling exercise and nutrition programs, which can be physically and emotionally harmful .”

Duigan induced his name educate the likes of Elle Macpherson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley- both enormously successful models, neither with especially achievable physiques- but he is unequivocal about his issues with online fitness programs.” Too many of these videos feature complex moves and people get hurt ,” he says.” From a physiological perspective, there’s no guaranty you’re doing things right online .”

Duigan tells me the story of an 18 -year-old client who has just joined his gym, after becoming preoccupied with an online workout” advocated by very thin models and reality TV superstars “. He sighs:” She developed an eating disorder and was under medical supervision for 18 months. It makes me angry. Many online workouts feature models and they seem so compelling, playing into our deepest insecurities. But regular people won’t achieve the same results.”

Lisa Andrews has now made a full recovery, but is determined not to succumb to online training a second time.” I have deleted social media from my phone so I can’t fall back into that vortex. And I’ve joined a gym where they’ve made a programme especially for me. It’s early days and I know it will take time, but I’m having fun again .”

Some names have been changed .

* Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in publish, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publication ).

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