Cert by Selfie

Anyone with an attractive body and an urge to show it off can become an instant expert thanks to social media. This has pluses and minuses for fitness professionals.

By Amanda Vogel, MA
Jun 23, 2014

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.”

Setting the Stage for Successful fitness Selfies

Selfies are just one of the many possibilities for contributing to social media from a fitness angle. But should serious fitness pros be posting selfies?

Yes, but it helps to do the right things for the right reasons. Ask yourself who is in the photo, why you want to publish it online and how it is being used to promote fitness (if at all). Not all selfies are created equal. Posing in front of the bathroom mirror to bare a six-pack might seem motivating, but whereÔÇÖs the substance? Audiences with a genuine interest in fitness will connect to content they relate to and/ or see value in. And no one says the subject of a good selfie has to look model perfect.

ÔÇ£People respond to gym videos or selfies of anyoneÔÇönot only to see their physique but also to see the daily work that goes into it,ÔÇØ says Kelly Olexa, CEO and founder of FitFluential, a global fitness community. Based in Chicago, Olexa describes herself on her Twitter profile as a ÔÇ£fitness fanatic.ÔÇØ ÔÇ£Seeing that person at the gym after they just did the StairMill for 40 minutes on a Friday night versus hitting the happy-hour scene with friendsÔÇöthatÔÇÖs incredibly motivating.ÔÇØ

A compelling selfie can give your brand personality, says Natalie Jill, a licensed master sports nutritionist and a certified personal trainer in San Diego. ÔÇ£Many people love the ÔÇÿreality TVÔÇÖ feel of a selfie. They want a glimpse into your life, and selfies are very personal. People feel they know you better, and that is key in todayÔÇÖs overedited and over-Photoshopped advertising world.ÔÇØ

Done properly, fitness content contributes to a positive impression of exercise. ÔÇ£If the person in the selfie looks happy while working out (includingÔÇögaspÔÇösweating), then it sends a message that exercise is fun,ÔÇØ says Alexandra Williams, MA, of FunAndFit.org. ÔÇ£In addition,ÔÇØ she adds, ÔÇ£it shows that itÔÇÖs not necessary to have standard model looks in order to be an ambassador of health.ÔÇØ

Bottom line, says Olexa: ÔÇ£People respond to seeing real people.ÔÇØ

However, posting a parade of photos showing your ÔÇ£realÔÇØ side isnÔÇÖt enough to support long-term follower growth and engagement. Selfies may seem to be all about the person in the photo, but they arenÔÇÖt. Smart social marketers know this. ÔÇ£The good people are those who are passionate about inspiring others with a ÔÇÿYou can do this too!ÔÇÖ attitude versus ÔÇÿLook how ripped I am. IÔÇÖm awesome,ÔÇÖÔÇØ says Olexa. ÔÇ£If you just post about yourself and never [interact with] anyone, that comes across as self-serving and, in the long run, will not sustain any interest.ÔÇØ

For Williams, the nature of the selfie also makes a difference. ÔÇ£I am turned off by selfies that shout, ÔÇÿLook at me and my muscles/pose/heavy weight.ÔÇÖ I like selfies that are open, friendly and sharing. Sometimes the picture has to be taken in context with the text. For example, if the person is posed, I might be initially turned off, yet if the text states, ÔÇÿIÔÇÖm so proud of myself, after a year of hard work, for losing 60 pounds,ÔÇÖ IÔÇÖd immediately hit ÔÇÿlikeÔÇÖ because to me, the picture has gone from self-promotion to sharing emotion!ÔÇØ

Honing a Selfie Strategy

Think of selfies as ÔÇ£snapshotsÔÇØ of the bigger picture, which is a fleshedout content strategy based on specific marketing and business goals. With 364,000 followers on Instagram (at press time), Jill says the top mistakes of fitness pros are posting selfies without a target audience in mind and failing to develop an end goal.

ÔÇ£When I do share selfies, there are a few reasons they work: I have developed a very strong brand. I am relatable. I am a mom, I share my age, and I share my hardships. With most of my posts, I share some sort of information that benefits my target market. That way, people are learning from my posts versus feeling like I am just saying, ÔÇÿLook at me!ÔÇÖ I make sure my selfies make people feel motivated and happyÔÇönot bad about themselves.ÔÇØ

The more genuine the selfie, the better. ÔÇ£I present my selfies the exact same way I present myself in person,ÔÇØ says Williams. ÔÇ£They are consistent with who I amÔÇöa Boomer woman who likes to laugh, has sweaty mascara streaks, gets redfaced during exercise, and has good days and bad. I want the energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment that exercise brings me to show on my face.ÔÇØ

It All Starts With a Good Plan

If your goal is to gain followers, build a platform as a fitness authority, and drive direct or indirect sales through social media, map out a plan.

You have to start by defining your target audience, advises Chalene Johnson, a frequent IDEA presenter whose best-selling home fitness programs include Turbo Fire® and Turbo Jam®. ÔÇ£Think about what your target customer wants, and make sure it fits with your brand, then stick to that. DonÔÇÖt be swayed to do the stuff that everyone is doing just because everyone is doing it. For everything you post, ask yourself: Is this interesting or valuable to a stranger?ÔÇØ

Johnson is acutely aware of what her followers want. SheÔÇÖs garnered an impressive fan base across social sites, including more than 345,000 on Instagram (at press time). ÔÇ£My target customer is 25ÔÇô45, female, healthy, married, has 2.5 kids, works full time. If I were to post a photo of myself in a bikini doing squats, IÔÇÖd lose her [as a follower]. I know because sheÔÇÖs like me, and I am offended by that. It might get me more likes, but it will attract a 24-year-old dude and he is not my customer. Frankly, I donÔÇÖt want a customer who actually thinks fitness looks like two oiled-up girls doing squats in thongs. We wonÔÇÖt relate.ÔÇØ


References

Boyce, L. 2014. Don’t be fooled by the Instagram personal trainer. HuffPost Living Canada. www.huffingtonpost.ca/lee-boyce/instagram-personal-trainers_b_4632.html; accessed Mar. 29, 2014.
Good Morning America. 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/instagram-star-jen-selter-reveals-exercise-secrets-22859236; accessed Apr. 28, 2014.
Heitner, D. 2014. Instagram marketing helped make this multi-million dollar nutritional supplement company. Forbes.com. www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2014/03/19/instagram-marketing-helped-make-this-multi-million-dollar-nutritional-supplement-company?; accessed Mar. 29, 2014.
Howorth, C. 2013. The posterior economics of motivation mogul Jen Selter. Elle.com. www.elle.com/news/beauty-makeup/jen-selter-interview; accessed Mar. 29, 2014.
Johnson, C. 2014. Personal communication.
New York Post. 2014. Jen Selter makes a splash with her fitness column debut. http://nypost.com/2014/05/06/jen-selter-makes-splash-fitness-column-debut/; accessed May 9, 2014.
Shape.com. 2014a. We’re searching for the hottest male trainers. www.shape.com/fitness/were-searching-hottest-male-trainers; accessed Apr. 15, 2014.
Shape.com. 2014b. We’re looking for the hottest female trainers. www.shape.com/fitness/we-re-looking-hottest-female-trainers; accessed Apr. 15, 2014.

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Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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