Flo’s Brain Grass Supplement

The fitness industry is a behemoth and it is growing with no signs of slowing down. Everyday there’s newer and crazier services that promise better results than everything that has been done before. Check out this underwater training. Or this new nutritional fad that can tell you exactly when to eat according to your circadian rhythm .  Even classic old fads like the universal gym machine are coming back in its digital versions.  For each macronutrient there is a corresponding diet, and a group of followers. For each type of movement a big believer and a naysayer. The internet does not seem big enough to hold all the new fitness out there.

I honestly think this is pretty great. In a world full of chronic disease and obesity I think even a bowflex is a good thing and all of these offers should be celebrated, even in their most absurd form. However, all this explosion and variance does require that we become very critical consumers. One of the main problems with the fitness industry is that there is virtually no regulation. Ponder this for a second. Think about all the supplements you have bought at GMC. They don’t have to prove their statements to anyone or any institution because they are supplements not drugs. This means quite literally that if you think the grass in your backyard makes you smarter because your dog eats it and he is pretty darn smart, great! You can package it and sell it as “Flo’s brain grass supplement”. The FDA would be cool with you. Unless somebody makes a study to prove you wrong, which is nonsense because Flo is brilliant. So your supplement is good to go. 

This lack of regulation extends to training methodologies, equipment, and trainers. This all means is that if you don’t do quality control on the marketing you consume, you will end up buying shitty products, confused, and frustrated. So in order to help with this I wanted to outline the four main strategies that fitness marketing usually employs so that you can identify them and consume critically. (Disclaimer: the examples given here are products on the market of which I neither approve nor disapprove, I just want to point out their selling strategies).

  1. FOMO and the magic pill. The first thing the fitness industry creates is fake problems. Play along with me for a second. Ask yourself these questions: is your nutrition optimal? Are you where you want to be? The answer to that is no for the vast majority of people. Most of us are not happy where we are. After those two questions you are ready for me to tell you what you need, what you are lacking. Moreover, most of us really want to believe that there is that one thing we are not doing. That magic pill that will get us where we want to be. The 1% that differentiates the elite from the rest. And so traditional fitness marketing plays with both our dissatisfaction and our aspiration. It is a  very clever use of FOMO. Consider the “recovery” pyjamas Under Armour did with Tom Brady -yes, it is pretty ridiculous. In the commercial Brady states: “I don’t think I would be able to achieve the things I’ve have done” without these jammies. Under Armour is selling you the 1% that will make you elite. It is making you think: what if this is *the* thing that I need to sleep better? What if it works and I don’t have it? What if my sleep is not optimal? Maybe if I wear these pyjamas, I’ll finally lose those last 10 lbs and my skin will clear up and everyone at work will appreciate my awesome ideas!
  2. Fast solutions and before and after pictures. Nobody wants to hear that change is slow and unpredictable. Nobody wants to hear there is no way to do it faster. We want what we want, and we want it now. Hence the fitness challenge model. Check out what this super successful fitness business is doing. They are becoming increasingly popular but all they are doing is repackaging group fitness classes and meal plans in an 8 week challenge. The challenge model is an excellent model for business because it is *contained*. This means they can ask a lot from their clients given that nothing will be long term; most people can commit to meal plans with a big caloric deficit and intensive training protocols for 8 weeks, which means that in those 8 weeks you can create dramatic short-term change, and great before and after pictures. Sadly most of these fast interventions are not sustainable in the long term so most people tend to go back to where they were after a while. In my experience when somebody sells you “fast” in fitness, you should start walking the other way. Also, everytime you see a before and after picture set, ask yourself why just 2 pictures? Demand long-term solutions from your fitness products and you will be better served.  
  3. Fake science as marketing. This is such a  common trend nowadays, and one of the most pernicious -go back to the Under Armour jammies. The use of bad science to sell fitness products is terrible for you as a consumer and terrible for science. Marion Nestle has written extensively about this specific problem in the case of nutrition. I invite you to read her, it will be very eye opening. But let me give you an example in the training world. Check out the super popular BodyPump workout by LesMills. If you click that link you will see how they state their system is scientifically proven. Unfortunately the only research backing up BodyPump is the one paid for by BodyPump. Any fitness geek, physiology professor, muscle researcher, or gym rat will tell you how little consensus there is on effectiveness when it comes to training methodologies. The claim by BodyPump is a void statement.
  4. Urgency Myth. Of all the tactics this is the least harmful. However it is widely used and it can be a sign that you want to look closely at what you are buying. Most fitness services and products have deadlines for you. These deadlines are often false. This is a tactic employed in many other industries. However in the fitness industry it is particularly effective because it is coupled with your own sense of urgency. You see, we tend to feel we should be fitter now and do more, because fitness is health. And of course that sense of urgency holds a lot of truth in it. But that should not rush you. Whatever product or service you are buying, it can wait. If it is cheaper today than it was yesterday, it will be cheaper again in a month. Don’t let the urgency myth rush you.

Whenever you are buying a fitness product, make sure you are not falling prey to any of these tactics. Look at the product for what it is. Be cynical when consuming. For example: the Peloton bike is not the ultimate cardio machine as they market it to be. It is a spinning bike that met Jane Fonda and an NES. This does not disqualify it at all, I actually think those 3 things are awesome together. But if I wanted to buy the ultimate cardio machine I would consider other variables not included there. How am I going to measure whether my cardiovascular capacity is better? Why is the peloton more effective than say a real bike for this specific purpose? Could I invest those $3000 in something different and get the same amount of cardiovascular health?

Keep it cynical!