New Year, New You

At the start of each year, so many of us make a list of things we want to do or do differently for the new year. A regular favorite in the resolutions department is to “work out more” or “go to the gym more.”

Beyond the resolutions, the fitness industry has successfully adapted to an ever-growing digital and remote world. Fitness is such an incredibly broad space — from yoga to tech-infused home workouts  to extreme sports—there’s something “fit” for almost everyone. 

This spectrum really makes virtually everyone the target audience for fitness marketing and media.

Dark Patterns in Fitness Marketing and Media

In early 2023, you’ve probably already seen advertisements all over social media (and the rest of the Internet) for discounted gym memberships, equipment, or class sales. For the rest of the year, you’ll still see these advertisements on your TV, Internet, public transit, magazines, and even in your local gym.

We see advertisements so many times throughout the day that they can be hard to miss. Since technically anyone can be the target audience, we are bound to see fitness ads often. Though the more intense or niche fitness activities and equipment have a more defined audience, a gym membership or online class subscription can be used by almost anyone.

Over the last month, I’ve been talking to different people about their fitness journeys, from folks who do not regularly practice fitness to personal trainers. The overwhelming feedback: the fitness industry uses fear and pressure to drive insecurity, and thus drive sales. 

While fitness marketing and sponsored content online can be overwhelming to users and viewers, one can only wonder about the dark patterns that take place in the industry. 

The Roach Motel of Gym Memberships

The first pattern that comes to mind is the “Roach Motel” model of memberships, echoing Black Flag’s longtime insect trap ads that confidently proclaimed “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out!”

Obtaining the membership is so simple – just give your name and card number and you’re good to go. However, it can be nearly impossible to cancel if you need to do so for any reason. Some branches require customers to go into their selected branch to make an in-person request to cancel their membership, while others make it clear in contracts (in the fine print, of course) that the membership lasts for 12 months and you cannot cancel it before that time is up.

Profiting Off Fear

Another dark pattern in the fitness industry shows up in sales drives, where fear is the star of the show. Fear-mongering in the fitness industry can be seen virtually everywhere, from scrolling through TikTok to driving by billboards on your commute home. Headlines plastered on billboards or popping up in your social media feeds will tell you to get a better body now, that there are “no excuses.”  They tell you that, for a small monthly fee, you too can look like the model in the advertisement in just two short weeks.

Researcher Professor Brett Martin of the University of Bath and Dr. Rana Sobh of Qatar University conducted a study with undergraduate students about how fear impacts people’s fitness regimens.  They surveyed 281 students and split them into two groups.  They asked one group to imagine themselves as if they had failed to keep up with their fitness plans, and the other to imagine themselves as if they had dramatically succeeded in their fitness plans.  The researchers found that the folks asked to imagine a “dramatic failure” were motivated to keep up with their fitness routines because “they were fearful of not looking good.”

Fitness is not as complicated as the industry makes it out to be.  It is, basically, a combination of movement and nutrition that can be inserted into most individuals’ day-to-day lives. Fitness is accessible to many people, from small arm movements to deadlifting weights at the gym, and these companies know that. They also know that people fear becoming an “unattractive” version of themselves, hence the marketing campaigns around the “no excuses” mindset.

Advertisement by fitness streaming service Beachbody

Classic ‘90s Body-Shaming Headlines

Body types, before the age of fitness marketing, were not generally defined en masse as on or off-trend. For a long time, especially since the 1990s, “thinner than thin” has been with us as an advertising concept. Many companies utilize fear, guilt, and intimidation-based marketing on customers to spend the money to fit in and be “on trend” with their bodies.

Pop star-fused magazine headlines like “Get abs like Britney in 2 weeks,” to “Selena looking heavier on a beach vacation” reinforce this. Even in the 1940s, marketing in newspapers discussed how wives should look for their husbands. Before this age of marketing going back to ancient times, though, you’ll see sculptures, paintings, and photographs of people partaking in day-to-day activities from reading to swimming with all different body types. 

One of the first recognized pieces of artwork is an ancient sculpture of a larger feminine figure. In stark contrast, today’s media is seemingly solely focused on body types which represent a VERY narrow slice of demographics.

Collage of Magazine Covers by Danielle Martin

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)  notes on its website that there have been numerous studies on the relationship between media and eating disorders.  A study was conducted with another group of undergraduate students by Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor about how young people are impacted by the ongoing media and marketing centered around body dissatisfaction and fitness together.  They found that the relationship between the media and young people’s disordered eating and drive for thinness is significant. 

The NEDA states that research around this relationship is “increasingly clear” and continues to show that “media does indeed contribute and that exposure to and pressure exerted by media increase body dissatisfaction and disordered eating” (National Eating Disorders Association).

Positive Trends in Fitness

Vlogs and Digital Fitness Classes stole the show in 2020, and they keep growing. They were on the up and up pre-COVID with sponsors towards influencers to persuade people to buy into products, regimens, and memberships. Now, they have become part of the norm.

Once the pandemic hit and everyone started getting restless, so many people invested in home workout equipment, from yoga mats to Peloton bikes. Workouts started getting even more accessible as more and more people started to request easier access to them.

Most Impactful Fitness Trend: Online Classes 

About half of the people I have spoken with over the past month have said that they prefer viewing media content from online content creators like fitness instructors or vloggers. One user said they prefer viewing it these ways because they can “get a more detailed version of the person’s workout” and why they are working out.

Content creators and online fitness trainers like MadFit (video featured above) share free at-home workouts on their YouTube channel for millions of people to take part in every day. These creators help make fitness more accessible to people who may not be able to go to or afford a gym.

MadFit figurehead Maddie Lymburner provides free fitness classes of all kinds – from stretching or sculpting, to quiet or low-impact workouts – with the goal that as many people as possible can have access to fitness. Her content mirrors in-person fitness classes from stretching to cardio to sculpting. This kind of content paved the way for gyms and companies like Peloton to provide successful digital at-home classes, especially during the pandemic over the past few years.

The Impact of Influencers

Some vloggers are also helping make fitness more accessible to more people. For instance, vloggers like Emma Chamberlain and Soph Mosca are known for sharing their spin classes, yoga sessions, runs, and even regular workouts with their followers. Influencers like them help set workout and equipment trends, and promote different ways of interacting with the fitness world.

These vlogs typically follow the narrator around for the day as they complete different tasks and take part in different activities, oftentimes including their fitness routines. Mosca, for example, is also a professional dancer and content creator who uses her YouTube, TikTok, and podcast platforms to share about life with Type 1 Diabetes. 

Vlog thumbnail from Soph Mosca’s YouTube Channel

A lot of her content dives into how her fitness has had to adapt to her lifestyle since her diabetes diagnosis.  While her vlogs show insight into her daily life and routines from fitness to cooking, her podcast Happy Human Club dives into life coaching, deep conversation, and advice on how a well-balanced life can be achievable (while admitting she can fall off of it at times, too).

Some influencers even show their fitness routines in their wheelchairs, with injuries, while blind, or with sensitive joints through at-home workouts, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Since almost everyone can benefit from one or more aspects of fitness, these creators are adding to the notion that everyone should have access to fitness knowledge and activities.

It’s Not Personal

It’s important to keep one thing in mind when coming across fitness media: it’s not personal, it’s marketing. Just because it may be tailored to you doesn’t mean it’s for you. Still, some marketing campaigns can be triggering, even damaging, and ignoring it all is easier said than done. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to use the algorithm against itself, like purposely seeking out creators like MadFit for some classes or Soph Mosca for normalizing and de-stigmatizing fitness so your targeted ads may align more with what you are seeking for your fitness routine or journey. Fitness is personal, marketing is not.

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