The online fitness fantasy

Personal trainer Emily Francis-Pester.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to go on social media without getting caught up in the global fitness craze. But becoming obsessed with this trend can be harmful, Kelly Masters reports.

Matt Pockett has been going to a nearby gym for two years after being encouraged by a friend.

The 19 year-old completes three workouts a week, each lasting between 45 minutes and two hours. He carefully monitors his progress.

He says that social media posts and blogs are great for everyone involved in fitness and newcomers as it “shows a sense of community” and provides people who are looking to get involved with simple tips to begin a routine as well as find inspiration.

But while social media can be used positively to encourage people to take more interest in their health and work out, the trend of fitness posts, pictures and blogs online can also negatively affect young and vulnerable people’s mental health.

Emma Steer is an educational and developmental psychologist at Olympic Park in Melbourne. She works with children and adolescents who participate and train in amateur to elite sports.

Steer says that many young people begin working out to maintain or improve fitness, health and wellbeing and in particular for, “social reasons”.

“With access to social media there’s always going to be people who have personalities that are more ‘vulnerable’,” she says.

Being overexposed to fitness online can lead to mental health disorders and it is important to limit “the exposure you have to those things, not becoming obsessed and if you find yourself becoming obsessed go and seek professional help”, she says.

Melbourne-based personal trainer, Emily Francis-Pester, has been involved in both the fashion and fitness industries, which she describes as “aesthetically driven”.

Working in a busy gym, she says body image, anorexia , bulimia and eating disorders are part of a fitness “epidemic” that social media plays a huge role in.

Francis-Pester admits to posting photos on social media of herself doing fitness-related activities such as “single leg squats”, although she finds social media frustrating  when everyone is exposed to “fitness models that look healthy but often train in extremely unhealthy ways”.

She says the images can be misleading .“People are not honest and upfront about fitness and how they got to their goals, I mean really honest”. An, “alternative, unattainable and damaging reality”, is how she describes fitness online if people are not completely honest about their journey.

Pockett says Australia is taking on the global trend of fitness, which isn’t bad unless people are working out wrong or, “putting themselves in danger”.

He was never exposed to fitness blogs during his high school years and believes famous people promoting the fitness lifestyle online is why it is “having so much more traction”.

“It’s more in the face of younger people because of the celebrities that are endorsing it,” he says.

You don’t have to search hard to find celebrities endorsing fitness brands and related health food products, Francis-Pester says. “The pictures tell a story but not a realistic one.”

“They’re paid to wear all the clothes in the photos, paid to have the protein shakes and everything is fabricated,” she says.

Francis-Pester also sees the goal to be skinny or leaner as “a big problem in our society, but I think people like the Kardashians are even worse”.

She says public figures such as the Kardashians are not trained, “realistic fitness role models”, for the everyday young person trying to achieve an aesthetic goal through working out.

“Unfortunately society idolises the wrong people for fitness,” she says.

Emma Steer urges people to follow Australian exercise guidelines and to remember exercise should be enjoyable, interesting and somewhat challenging.

The department of Health’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines state that young people aged 13-17 years should accumulate at least an hour of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. Exceeding this is not recommended.

She says if it gets to the point where it interferes with your life, where you find yourself thinking about exercising all the time and it’s taking over work, your social life, school or university studies then, “they are signs you need to seek the help of a professional”.

Society’s idea of someone who is ‘fit’ is generally someone who is skinny or lean according to Ms Francis Pester. She says this adds on pressure to young vulnerable people who think they need to train and eat a certain way to be seen as fit.

“It’s so extreme you can’t just like fitness” for people to believe you work out and eat a balanced diet ,” she says.

“People don’t think you’re all in unless you’re extreme and you can’t be extreme in anything in life because you narrow your perspective down.”

Matt Pockett says when it comes to posting fitness- related pictures or transformations online he is proud of what he is doing and sharing how you are “is always a good thing”.

He says that it is something people are, “really proud of and something they alone have done”. Whether the transformation is small or large people should be able to share their accomplishments with their friends without feeling as though they are in the wrong or gym obsessed.

Steer says many people feel pressure to be at a certain level or look a certain way, leading many to overtrain and as a result fall victim to Burnout  where, “performance is decreasing but the training is still quite intense and you’re not seeing the rewards”.

When reading , watching or being exposed to social media  with unrealistic expectations that are put online, she says it is about being able to step back and say, ’ok that’s there but I’m not going to become obsessed with that’, and figure out what’s right for you.

“It comes back to young people’s resiliency and having the skills and understanding to know what’s realistic or not,” she says.

If this has raised concerns for you or someone you know please visit the Australian Psychological society’s website or call lifeline on 13 11 14.