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  • Sarah Wymer

I am a Fitness Professional, Not An Influencer.

I am currently working on a book chapter titled "I am a fitness professional, not an influencer: An analysis of fitness professionals’ perceptions of social media". As I put this chapter together, I would love to share my thoughts and ideas in a casual forum to understand others perceptions of fitness professionals use of social media.


Social media has facilitated a change in the fitness industry, with a shift towards fitness and health. Many people are now turning to social media platforms such as Instagram to follow and engage with personable faces who are willing to share personal insights into their own journeys through health, fitness and wellness. Boyd (2010) suggests that social media is the ideal marketing medium for fitness professionals as the searchability of information allows individuals to search for their ideal fitness trainer, while the scalability of content allows fitness trainers to increase their visibility and appeal to potential clients (Boyd, 2010). Whilst it is suggested that social media influencers are most successful interacting with consumers when they are authentic, confident, and interactive in their content (Glucksman, 2017), there is a blurred line between public and private domain.


In February 2020, I used a rather informal research method to help direct the focus of this project. I adopted an Instagram poll and asked my followers (disclosure, when I say followers, I am personally not an influencer, and all 609 followers are known to me) the subsequent questions;


Note: On Instagram polls, there is only an option to vote A or B, there is no room for a scaled answer or open-ended answers. Therefore, I acknowledge there is a high level of bias and limitations, however, I wanted to stimulate conversation and direct ideas to formulate my chapter.


  1. Do you see fitness trainers or personal trainers on social media as "Influencers"?

  2. Are you more likely to 'trust' the advice of a personal trainer on social media if you feel part of their life with content they share?

  3. Do you think personal/fitness trainers on social media who share insights into their personal life outside of fitness content are more successful or engaging?

In the 24-hour period that this poll was live, there were 62 responses collected.


The dictionary defines an influencer as "a person or thing that influences another". While the dictionary definition of an influencer has remained stable over time, social media has provided opportunities for extending appeal, reach, and impact. There is now a potential to broadcast with no time or location restraints and the ability to interact directly with followers which has impacted the level of 'influence'.


72% believe fitness professionals utilising social media are 'influencers'

Potentially, a qualified fitness trainer or professional (we will come to the qualified argument soon) utilising social media could provide a positive opportunity to extend their reach to a wider audience, allow unique moments to interact with their 'following' and increase the impact of health and fitness-related messages.


However, there is a perception that "influencers" are unqualified and provide advice they are not trained to be offering (often based on misinformation with the potential to be harmful). Often there is no way to tell who is qualified and who is not. Essentially 'anyone' can garner a social media following and use their platform to provide fitness 'advice'. Therefore, qualified fitness professionals often see the word 'fitness influencer' with a negative connotation and this is where issues may arise. For the purpose of this blog post, we refer to a fitness trainer or fitness professional as an individual who is qualified to provide health and fitness-related advice through their personal or business social media account.


79% believe they are more likely to 'trust' the advice of a personal trainer on social media if they feel part of their life with content they share

Social media may be an excellent platform for fitness professionals to extend their reach and influence with fitness-related messages, however, 79% of respondents believe there is a higher level of trust when fitness content is supplemented with "every day" content. This was further echoed by Reade (2020) "capturing the banality of everyday life and including family members, friends and pets in posts correspond with visual conventions to achieve perceptions of authenticity" (p.12). For example, individuals may use their story to show 'snippets' into their daily life unrelated to fitness and therefore may increase the sense of a relationship with a follower. Moreover, Reade (2020) suggested that presenting the highs and lows of everyday life was important for relatability with followers and cultivate digital intimacies with followers.


78% perceive fitness professionals or personal trainers on social media that share insights into their personal as more successful and/or more engaging

When fitness professionals / personal trainers are considering a digital strategy and building their unique personal brand, I emphasize the importance of allowing followers to see behind the scenes and snippets of 'everyday life' to create a sense of an authentic and personable character. By allowing this sense of authenticity, followers may perceive those who are willing to share this content are more successful and/or engaging than those who just share fitness content.


However, I question - how much do you share? As a fitness professional on social media, are you really expected to showcase your personal life to be successful? If you were a trainer on the "gym floor", you would not be expected to share your personal life with your client - in fact, that would almost be frowned upon, and breaking professional boundaries. Essentially, you are being 'followed' or 'hired' to exhibit your health and fitness knowledge - so why do you want to see my 'behind the scenes' too?


In June, 2020 I conducted a follow-up Instagram poll on my personal page. I asked my followers (yes, I am still not an influencer and have a total follower count of 609 family and friends) the following questions;


  1. Do you expect fitness trainers you follow on social media to share their personal life?

  2. If a fitness trainer/professional had relationship issues or personal issues and didn't share on social media, would you perceive them as less authentic or transparent?

  3. Do you think COVID19 has changed the type of content 'fitness professionals' share on social media?

Across the 24-hours that the polls featured on my stories, the response rate was 60. Once again, I acknowledge the bias and limitations of these findings, however, these are used to form a casual opinion piece of work.


74% of respondents do not expect fitness trainers to share their personal life on social media

Although respondents perceive fitness professionals who share their personal life and snippets of 'behind the scenes' on social media as more engaging or successful, it was not expected that this type of content is utilised within a social media strategy. One respondent noted, "No, I do not expect them to share, but it is nice to get an insight into their life outside of fitness sometimes". Another respondent noted "it depends what kind of page they have - personal or work-related". This is an interesting comment as it leads to the overarching issue being raised in this post - there seems to be a 'blurred line' between personal and professional boundaries. What are fitness trainers 'expected' to share on social media - while it may be 'nice' to see this behind the scenes content, how do you establish a personal page from a professional page and as an 'influencer' - does this become one and the same? In the face to face environment, there is a high level of intimacy between clients and fitness professionals through established trust, however, clear professional boundaries should be established - how does this differ in the online environment?


82% of respondents would not perceive fitness professionals as less authentic or transparent if they did not share their personal or relationship issues on social media

As we further note the 'blurred' lines of professional boundaries by fitness professionals on social media and engagement opportunities to see behind the scenes content, there is a potential 'limit' as to what is being shared. In November, 2019 Sophie Guidolin (@sophie_guidolin) hit back at a troll who claimed she was 'faking' her marriage break up as she had not shared any content regarding her relationship, and was continuing to post 'fitness' related content while experiencing relationship issues. She stated in an Instagram post:

"I am not an "influencer". I am a nutritionist and personal trainer. I am a mum and a wife. A real f**king person. Let that sink in. I am a real-life mum, boss, wife, friend, daughter, sister. You will see me shopping at Coles and running after my twins at nippers. I am the girl who smiles back at strangers and helps elderly people with their trolleys. I sing when I am walking even though I suck. I train with my head facing my feet to avoid any interaction. I am a normal human person"

After reading this caption on Guidolin’s Instagram page which boasts 475k followers, I further question whether the lines of business (i.e. fitness) and personal (i.e. relationships) content expectations by followers has become blurred. Guidolin's main purpose of social media is to promote her fitness and health business. Therefore, why are followers expecting insight regarding personal relationships to be shared? It could be suggested that if fitness professionals are adopting social media for personal content and then "go quiet" or discontinue with personal content and shift focus towards fitness content, followers may feel alienated or left out of a "friendship circle".


As one respondent noted, "If they are having personal issues that then has an impact on the way they train, I would not expect them to go into what the issues are but I do like when fitness profile I follow admit they had a terrible morning/day/week and what they did to overcome it". This type of view suggests followers want to feel part of what is going on, and by acknowledging an issue may create a level of transparency, authenticity and relatability. Although the previous view may not expect details to be shared, you only have to look on any profile for the number of comments left by "fans" or "followers" prying for further details.


84% of respondents believe that COVID-19 has changed the type of content that has been shared by fitness professionals on social media

The shift in content and the relationship between fitness professionals and followers has also been impacted by COVID-19. However, this will not go into detail as I believe this will be a post in itself. Stating the obvious, the 'workplace' for fitness professionals has changed and therefore followers have often had a higher level of access to the home environment and perhaps seen a shift in routine, or more 'behind the scenes' access that was not previously shared. While the majority of respondents believed it had changed, one respondent stated"I don't think it has. The content has stuck to the same goal/theme regarding fitness. Just a different style and workaround on what has been presented". Essentially, fitness trainers are still sharing fitness-related messages, however, we have seen a shift in the representation of fitness (e.g. home workouts, adapting equipment etc). Further exploration could examine whether we feel more 'connected' to "fitness celebrities" that we have followed through COVID-19. We have essentially seen their struggles as we have all adapted to an environment without the 'gym' and the struggles that have been presented may have presented a sense of rawness and vulnerability that may have been hidden pre-pandemic.


I look forward to exploring and researching this area as I prepare an academic exploration of the blurred lines between personal and professional boundaries on social media presented by fitness professionals. If you would like to chat further, I would love to hear from you!

  1. Why do you follow fitness professionals on social media?

  2. Do you expect these "influencers" or "fitness celebrities" to share their personal lives on social media intertwined with fitness content?

  3. Does this make you feel a sense of connection or further engaged with what they may post?

References

Boyd, D. (2010). Social network sites and networked publics: affordances, dynamics, and implications [from: A networked self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self: identity, community and culture on social network sites (pp. 39-58). New York: Routledge.

Glucksman, M. (2017). The rise of social media influencer marketing on lifestyle branding: A case study of Lucie Fink.Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications,8(2), 77-87.


Reade, J. (2020). Keeping it raw on the ‘gram: Authenticity, relatability and digital intimacy in fitness cultures on Instagram. New Media & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819891699


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