With seven-day gym classes and unregulated instructors on Instagram, is our appetite for exercise getting dangerous?
Lisa Andrews was looking for a quick fitness fix. The 34-year-old had a bit of weight to lose a year after having her first baby and, being both time-poor and on a budget, she decided to do it with the help of an online 12-week training programme shed seen advertised on Facebook. There were hundreds of transformations on there, Lisa tells me. I was so excited to start. The programme 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 totally 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 Id even do two sessions a day. Id skip other activities to work out because if I had to miss a session, Id feel depressed and worried it would derail my progress.
But when niggling pains in her feet and ankles developed into something more severe, Lisa was unable to go to work. An X-ray confirmed 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. Id be on Instagram all the time, looking at other peoples 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 spend record amounts of money exercising. Figures from the 2017 UK State of the Fitness Industry report show that the sector is worth more than 4.7bn 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 made its name with that inclusive Just Do It tagline, has taken to lambasting joggers in its latest ad 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 unlimited classes for short periods of time, 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 times. 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 way for gym nerds to share tips and document how their bodies changed, before spreading into a whole lifestyle movement. Instagrams 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 aerobics days, says Rick Miller, a clinical and sports 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 bursts of activity with short rests) gets mixed reviews from health professionals: some swear by the fast results, while many believe that unsupervised exercise of this kind can cause health problems.
Many young people I see are completely obsessed with Instagram fitness stars, Miller says, and they follow workouts from so-called trainers they dont know, which may not be right for their body or their levels of fitness. Fitness athletes are stars online, but their followers often try to train 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 levels of exercise, nutritional advice I would get struck off.
The National Careers Service advises that training to become a fitness instructor 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 training, an awareness of anatomy and physiology, and a qualification, which takes anything from six weeks to three months to achieve. 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.