Google “fitness influencer” and you’ll instantly bring up more than 76 million results. Mind-boggling. There are literally hundreds of thousands of supposed fitness experts vying for attention online and on social media, and pretty much all it takes to become an influencer is to declare yourself one. Which is, in fact, how many people who got in on the ground floor of platforms such as Instagram became “experts” — they lost a little weight, posted their transformation for the world to see and boom — they were instantly an “expert” on weight loss. Yet if you do a little digging, you’ll find that many of these influencers have no certifications, education or background in any associated health, weight-loss or fitness field.
The obvious ramification of the anyone-as-expert phenomenon is the rampant spread of potentially dangerous misinformation. “Social media influencers are able to connect with their followers and shape their attitudes and behaviors,” says Christina Sabbagh, M.Sc., from the organization Obesity Action in Scotland. “In weight management, this is a problem because there are no requirements for influencers to be qualified in any way, and these individuals could be spreading opinion-based — not evidence-based — advice.”
Results from a recent Parade/Cleveland Clinic Healthy Now survey revealed that 44 percent of people have taken personal health or fitness action based on information or advice obtained via social media. The top three categories cited were trying a natural remedy (20 percent), changing or adapting a fitness routine (18 percent), and changing or trying a new diet (18 percent).
Hit and Misinformation
And it’s true — cyberspace is teeming with misleading information. A recent study presented at the European Congress on Obesity found that out of the nine most popular wellness influencers in the U.K., only two were adequately qualified and only one had an actual degree in nutrition. There are other well-known cases in which fraudulent experts have been exposed, such as the so-called wellness guru Belle Gibson, who claimed to cure herself of terminal cancer through healthy diet and lifestyle, as well as “fitness expert” Brittany Dawn who — though completely unqualified and unaccredited — scammed thousands of people out of money selling fitness programs and advice.
What’s more, influencers often use their platforms to sell their own products and build their brand. “Also, other companies may be paying them to promote a product or service to their followers,” adds Jaime Schwartz Cohen, MS, RD, senior vice president and director of nutrition at Ketchum Public Relations in New York City. Recently, regulations were put in place that require an individual to disclose a paid relationship on social media, but it’s often still unclear, and people still get duped.
Culling the Herd
While there are plenty of bogus experts out there trying to make a quick buck, there are also plenty of influencers who are more than qualified to deliver solid advice — you just have to do a little legwork to find them. These four questions can help you determine whether an influencer is worthy of your time and trust.
1 | Does he or she have appropriate qualifications?
Look carefully in the “about me” or bio section of their platforms to see whether they’re certified or accredited from a science-backed organization. For instance, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Sports Medicine are two very reputable certifying bodies for personal training and coaching. “When you follow an influencer with credentials like these, you are assured that the information they’re sharing is science-based and that they’re abiding by a professional code of ethics,” Cohen says.
2 | Is there a disclaimer anywhere on their site, in their posts or in their copy?
“A disclaimer is a legal statement that limits the liability of the influencer, which means the information on the blog doesn’t constitute true medical or other legitimate advice,” Sabbagh says. In other words, the information they are delivering is opinion-based and this expert might possibly be unqualified to be delivering such advice.
3 | Have they referenced the advice they’re giving?
Sabbagh says any advice should be sourced through peer-reviewed journals or organizations to ensure it is evidence-based information (as opposed to a non-evidence-based statement in which a blogger cites one of his or her own previous posts to support a claim they are making, for example). References in the form of footnotes or links should be embedded within the post copy or listed at the end of the post, and they should be from studies conducted within the last three to five years.
4 | Is an influencer’s social presence or personal branding his or her main focus?
A professional should always be more interested in his or her career than in social media, and while having professional credentials is a must, look to see whether an expert has influence outside of cyberspace, Cohen says. For instance, is she quoted in the media as an expert? Does he hold leadership positions in professional organizations and associations? Has she written books or been involved in scientific research in the area of their expertise?
The Bottom Line
Some fitness influencers are well worth a read and a follow, but regardless, they should not replace working one-on-one with an expert to meet your personal health, fitness and weight-loss goals.