Paging Dr. Internet, we need a diagnosis. In this series, Mashable examines the online world's influence on our health and prescribes new ways forward.
Like anything in life, whether it be starting a new hobby or learning how to tie a tie, I turn to YouTube. Exercising was no different. As a novice in the fitness world, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. When I first searched fitness videos, I kept coming across videos like, "How to Get a Flat Stomach in Seven Days," "Lose Arm Fat in Five Days," and "Get Abs With This 10 Minute Routine." I grew frustrated, thinking to myself, "Is it really that easy to get a perfect body this quickly?"
It wasn't until I started doing the suggested exercises that I realized how intensive they were, how tiring they were, and frankly, how difficult they were, despite being targeted at beginners. Over time, I eventually found videos that actually gave me building blocks to develop my own routine. But I kept thinking in the back of my head how harmful, and frankly, annoying, those clickbaity exercise videos were when I began working out. And it's not just YouTube videos. There are plenty of apps on the App Store and Play Store promising similar quick fixes.
When trying to follow these instructions to get fit quickly but not seeing the expected results, I felt as if I wasn’t doing something right. I felt as if there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t get perfectly toned arms in a few days. But people shouldn’t compare themselves to others with perfectly toned bodies who promise that one video will change their physiques, fitness trainers told me. Videos like the ones I encountered perpetuate false notions about fitness that can leave you spiraling. It’s about time we talk about the mental health implications of clickbaity exercises online.
Despite the downsides, fitness influencers continue to post these kinds of videos because they get clicks, and clicks mean more influence, more money, and more sponsorships. Daniel Richter, personal trainer, powerlifting coach, and exercise instructor says, "YouTubers, and many other content producers, go this route because it works. The algorithm on both YouTube and other social media uses a click-through ratio as a ranking factor: If people click your video when they search for a topic, it moves up in rankings. If people don't click, you're gone. Using eye-catching images, emotional trigger words, and other clickbait practices are tactics to win the first battle in the war for your attention."
"If people don't click, you're gone."
Fitness instructors looking to hook customers who want to look just like them aren't new. Eugene Sandow, also known as the king of bodybuilding from the 1890s, is considered to be an early fitness influencer, even if the term didn't have the same meaning back then. His chiseled physique made people go gaga, and he opened a gym in London, wrote books, and ran a mail-order business selling exercise equipment and health products. He promised his fans and readers "the perfect physique" if they followed his advice. We've also long had a desire to get fit fast with minimal effort. In the 1940s "slenderizing" equipment retailers promised women their product would remove fat from their hips and thighs almost instantly. In 1995, a workout video you popped in the VCR called "8 Minute Abs" was such a sensation, it netted $20 million.
Fast forward to the late 2000s, and YouTube fitness gurus hungry for views came along mimicking the catchy promise of "8 minute abs." In this video with 39 million views, for example, a verified YouTuber claims you can lose belly fat in a week by working out with a five-minute routine. I tried it and felt as though it was definitely not made for a beginner like me. While many similar videos on YouTube are targeted at beginners, the content itself is by far better suited for seasoned fitness buffs.
Getting fit when you're just starting out takes time and effort and requires a mix of both exercise and diet, no matter what YouTube videos and "Six Pack in 30 Days" apps tell you, fitness professionals say.
"It is possible to lose up to 5 pounds in one week. However, it would require a program much more rigorous than a basic YouTube fitness class."
"It is possible to lose up to 5 pounds in one week. However, it would require a program much more rigorous than a basic YouTube fitness class. That alone would not suffice," Jess Rose McDowell, fitness trainer and founder of KINETIC SWEAT, a 24/7 virtual training service, says.
Michael Liu, the co-founder of Boostcamp, a platform for fitness creators to share content, says to choose long-term results over quick gimmicks. "Fitness is a journey that requires consistency and sustainable habit change. There are certainly workout programs that are more effective than others, but any video or apps that promise some new secret or instant two-week hack is probably a sham."
Changing your habits is no easy feat, yet it's incredibly easy to get discouraged. I've even given up after a couple of weeks of working out, only to get back to it after a bad day of insecurity. When you approach fitness with emotional baggage about your appearance already in tow, the framing of these kinds of videos can hit you especially hard.
Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist says these videos can tarnish one's self-esteem over time. "Seeing too many videos like this can make the viewer feel inadequate for not achieving their goals within a short time frame," she says.
Christina Friedman, the founder and fitness expert of WomensFitnessHQ.com, a site that offers health tips for women, agrees that these videos set unrealistic expectations for some. And that she personally, "hesitates to trust any workout built by someone making such wild claims."
So what's someone looking for an online workout to do when they're bombarded by these enticing claims?
Helen M. Ryan, a certified spinning and Pilates instructor and author, suggests doing your research. Yes, that's harder than clicking on the first video that promises to help you "lose belly fat in 5 days," but it'll set you up for success in the long run. She suggests looking for the following when digging into a fitness influencer's credentials:
Do they have a certification in the fitness field?
Do they offer modifications for people at different levels?
What do the video comments or app/website reviews say?
How long have they been in business?
One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that consistency and listening to your body is the key to a healthy workout routine. You can start with 10-minute to 20-minute videos to ease yourself into a routine, but remember better results come with time. For me, I work out with 45-minute to 60-minute videos a day now.
Clickbaity fitness videos and apps aren't going anywhere, but there are great workout videos online, too. Avoid the ones making promises that seem too good to be true, and you'll set yourself up for a more sustainable fitness journey.