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Cert by Selfie

Surf around on any of the major social media networks these days—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and especially Instagram—and you’ll likely get an eyeful of fitness selfies: photos of chiseled physiques or people staging “caught in the moment” snapshots of themselves at the gym or just after they’ve finished exercising. Social media’s eye-candy culture has become a perfect platform for fitness pros and enthusiasts to inspire others to get in shape and show off the physical outcomes of exercise with “selfies.”

According to OxfordDictionaries.com, “selfie” means a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically . . . with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Naturally, the world of fitness has expanded the selfie portrait—where you hold out your smartphone and take a photo of your face—to showcase the whole body.

Accounts devoted entirely to posting full-physique fitness selfies are easy to find on social media. The “Fitness Selfies” fan page on Facebook has more than half a million likes (at press time) and decent engagement. With smartphone apps like CamMe, which allows you to put down your phone and step away from it for a full-body camera view, snapping off body-conscious selfies is easier than ever (no mirrors required).

Of course, any fitness expert knows that showing off a ripped body on Facebook or Instagram doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of what it means to be fit. It’s all surface. Still, fitness pros and enthusiasts now have the opportunity to elevate themselves to the status of fitness authority—regardless of their qualifications.

Shape.com, for example, recently released an online contest in search of the “Hottest Male Trainer in America” (with a similar contest for female trainers). Shape’s application for men includes such questions as, “Number of push-ups you can do to exhaustion?” and “Women look sexiest doing which exercise?” but does not inquire about certification or professional qualifications. However, applicants are asked for their Twitter handles and Facebook URLs (Shape.com 2014a; Shape.com 2014b).

Online fitness content is hot these days, and standing out as a recognizable fitness figure on social media is anyone’s game. This raises a few questions: Where exactly does the fitness industry fit into this social media landscape? Should certified, educated, experienced fitness professionals join the selfie-posting masses? If they do, what’s the best way to go?

When Audience Trumps Education

Fitness-inspired content has quickly become a mainstay on social media, and fitness selfies are among the most popular posts in this category. Some people say all these selfies are helping fitness get the attention it deserves, while others argue that hard-body posts return us to old-school gym mentalities: “That trainer sure looks fit, so she must know what she’s talking about.”

Search hashtags like #fitfam (social media shorthand for “fitness lovers who support one another”) and #fitspo (“fitsporation” or “fitness inspiration”) on any of the big social sites and you’ll see images of everything from a bowl of blueberries to a before-and-after body to a bubble butt.

Many fitness-themed posts come from people who love fitness (or are trying to love it) and use social media in earnest to help themselves and others reach legitimate health goals. There are also aspiring fitness models, eager gym-goers, and exercise experts promoting products and businesses or just hoping to educate and inspire the public.

The booming fitness space on social media also includes accounts featuring fitness selfies (usually of women) to sell products like nutritional supplements (usually to men) (Heitner 2014; Johnson 2014). Then there are exercise enthusiasts with little or no professional education or experience in training clients. Some have attracted followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, making them instant mouthpieces for fitness on social media (no CECs required). Basically, it’s a case of certification by selfie.

According to an article on Elle magazine’s website, “Instagram’s fitness-selfie mega-star” Jen Selter nabs thousands of new followers when she posts a workout-inspired shot of her protruding glutes (seemingly made more protruding with exaggerated lumbar lordosis). Along with an ample Instagram follower base of 3.3 million (at press time), Selter reportedly receives sponsorships and “shout-outs” from big brands, including Lululemon, Nike and New Balance. She tells Elle that her goal is “to motivate people to be healthy and fit” (Howorth 2013).

Selter has also appeared in a TV segment from ABC’s Good Morning America to share her “workout secrets” and “tips on staying in shape” (as stated in the broadcast). The segment included Selter demonstrating exercises—including one done on all fours called Donkey Kicks/Fire Hydrants—while answering questions about the number of reps and sets she performs. In May, the New York Post debuted Selter as their fitness columnist (New York Post 2014). (IDEA Fitness Journal reached out to Selter and her representation several times to verify her certification and experience, but did not receive a response.)

Of course, there’s no way to require people to have formal fitness training—much less certification—before they post on social media sites. And the people liking, commenting on and sharing fitness-themed posts don’t seem to be asking who’s qualified and who isn’t. Does it matter? Is fitness motivation coming from any source still a help to the fitness industry? Or does it devalue what we do?

“I do not think it devalues anything,” says licensed master sports nutritionist and certified personal trainer Natalie Jill (@NatalieJillFit on Instagram), in San Diego. Jill, who specializes in weight loss consulting and in counseling people with food allergies, is certified by the National Association of Sports Nutrition. “I am not personally a fan of the entitlement mindset. It never really is about the credentials, the experience or the title; it is about making a connection with people. Anyone can get the credentials. Not everyone can develop a following or be of interest to others. You can have all the credentials in the world, but if you never market yourself, nobody will find you. Anyone can be an advocate if they have a following,” she says.

Average people posting about their enthusiasm for fitness is one thing, but Alexandra Williams, MA, draws the line when these fitness fans are appointed as—or present themselves as— exercise experts on social platforms. “I know one very popular blogger whose fitness experience consists of a significant weight loss that she’s maintained for years. A fabulous accomplishment! Yet she regularly promotes herself as a fitness expert and has even called herself one of the top experts in the world. She is an expert on her weight loss, not on fitness. I have definite concerns about these kinds of claims. The possibility for injury is too great to be left to enthusiasts with opinions or personal success stories. The personal stories are excellent for inspiring new exercisers and definitely have a place in the conversation. Giving advice without training is unethical,” she says. Williams (@AlexandraFunFit on Instagram) is a writer and co-owner of FunAndFit.org who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Truth is, many qualified fitness professionals are not participating in the fitness side of social media, either by choice or because they don’t know how to translate their expertise into a compelling social story. “If you are standing in a white lab coat with your line of 17 certifications and you’re not even able to reach 100 people, what’s the point?” says Chalene Johnson (@ChaleneJohnson on Instagram), a motivational speaker and fitness celebrity. She has built and sold several multimillion-dollar fitness and lifestyle companies. “I think it’s important that people don’t spend a moment bashing the [social media] movement. It’s there, and it’s rolling fast. Get with the program or create something that’s better,” she says. Johnson offers an online training program called Instagram Impact Academy that teaches people how to use the site for business (Johnson 2014).

Johnson observes that the last people to have taken advantage of fitness on social media, and especially Instagram, are the true fitness professionals. “Everybody who has a decent physique and a camera—and really has no business calling themselves a fitness expert—is suddenly seen as a fitness expert because they have half a million followers and great abs,” Johnson says. “Regrettably, some of the people who have the best knowledge, best information and most value to provide have been late to the game or don’t see the opportunity. And there is tremendous opportunity” (Johnson 2014).

Connections Versus Credentials

There are excellent reasons for fitness pros to participate in social media. But how can fitness pros send the right message in their social media marketing while finding ways to stand out from all the competing content out there? After all, Shape.com’s Web search for the hottest trainer emphasizes push-ups over credentials.

“This may sound harsh, but most do not care about credentials,” says Jill. “Clients want to know that you are certified, but it is not the titles [that count]; it is what you do with the titles. The most successful fitness personalities and motivators are not usually the most credentialed. They are the ones who are most relatable to people!”

Being “relatable” helps you to capture the attention of an audience you can educate and motivate with smart, appropriate content. “We [fitness pros] tend to emphasize education, research and safety, which aren’t exactly glamorous,” says Williams. “Our knowledge and expertise are necessary and relevant, and if we carry our professional accomplishments with confidence, people will accept them and us. However, to connect with people, we need to establish relationships.”

Fitness pros need to lead the conversation about certifications and qualifications by prominently displaying them in all their social media profiles, says Kelly Olexa (@KellyOlexa on Instagram), CEO and founder of FitFluential, a global fitness community of 12,000 members who use social media to share their fitness journeys. “Hopefully we can educate the consumer to look for [credentials] first, versus the idea of ‘hottest trainer,’ which is a bit ridiculous.”

Inspiring the Social Media World to Fitness

When it comes to the promotion of fitness, social media is an open playing field. Create an Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account and you’ve got instant access to a publishing platform of your own. Post what you like and leave the rest—you never know whom you might inspire out there. “Starting a fitness journey is hard enough,” says Olexa. “When you feel alone, it is so easy to give up. That’s the beauty of this social media world we live in. It connects us and, I think, enables us to keep going when normally we might have thrown in the towel.”

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