The Rise of Health Influencers

Brittany Blackman
Feb 22, 2022

The boom of the digital creative economy has garnered millions of dollars for content creators, catapulted small businesses to success, and ushered in a new wave of influencers. The total health and fitness industry revenue was estimated to be around $54.2 billion in 2021, down from $96.7 billion in 2019.

In revenue terms, this represents a 44% decrease in the overall industry. Still, sectors under the fitness umbrella-like digital creation, health foodies, and home equipment, have experienced dramatic growth. I'm looking at you, Peloton.

The industry is already experiencing a rebound from the pandemic, showing positive signals that it will continue to grow over the long term. That said, digital fitness creators are bringing in a good chunk of the proverbial bacon. 

The Modern-Day Health Influencer

The pandemic bolstered the shift from corporate gyms to a more social media influencer-dominated industry. One sector of this economy that experienced a drastic cultural and monetary shift is the health and fitness industry. 

Now more than ever, people use social media for free workouts, nutrition advice, and overall wellness advice, propelling successful online content creators. When there's a demand, people who excel in that niche come in droves to take up space in their respective sectors as it grows. It happened in the wellness and fitness industry seemingly overnight.

So, who is doing the influencing? 

The community of fitness influencers mostly lives on Instagram, but this reach expands to YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. Business Insider notes that the sector thrives on Instagram due to the inherent focus on looks and aesthetics. It's almost tailor-made for the photo-sharing platform, where users share "fitspo" adhering to the latest trends, whether yoga poses on city streets, extreme workouts in scenic mountain ranges, or gorgeously crafted acai bowls.

The health and fitness market is a lucrative business. The top Instagram Fitness influencers make as much as $72k per static post. One of the original personalities to capitalize on the health and fitness niche was Jen Selter, a health and fitness influencer with 12.8 million followers on Instagram. Her fitness journey started in high school when she worked as a receptionist at a local gym. Selter was catapulted into the spotlight in 2012 after her glute workout went viral. Now she's a top earner in the industry. Other heavy hitters from this era include Tammy Hembrow, an Australian fitness influencer who now has 14.1 million followers on Instagram, and Kayla Itsines, an Instagram fitness influencer with a following of 13.9 million followers and the owner of 'The Bikini Body Training Company.'

One of the newer representatives of a changing industry is Chloe Ting, a fitness influencer whose career catapulted during the pandemic after countless TikTok personalities mentioned her as their go-to for in-home workouts. While she was relatively famous beforehand, she reached a major following on YouTube of 16.5 million subscribers after word-of-mouth marketing helped her succeed. She now makes upwards of around $50k per video.

While these numbers sound enticing, there is heavy debate about the ethics of some of these influencers' diets and exercise, and many are surrounded by controversy. 

The Controversy

There are some insidious elements to fitness influencer culture. Dishonesty, health hazards, and misinformation plague the industry. Controversy is partially what drives some of these influencers. That being said, the public's widespread adoration of influencer practices has been somewhat of a detriment. Eager consumers are quick to adhere to the words of big-name influencers who receive up to six figures to promote detox teas and methods that aren't safe or even effective.

According to a study conducted at the University of Alberta, out of all of the fitness professionals they studied, only 16.4% had any certifications. The advice some of these influencers provide, whether on diet plans or injury rehabilitation, has no basis in health and physical sciences. 

Much of the advice and "expertise" we see on social media lacks the credibility to back it up. The complete lack of regulation in the fitness industry leads to fake professionals offering self-serving misinformation. No regulation also means that anyone can take a weekend course and call themselves an exercise pro alongside those who have obtained graduate degrees in the exercise sciences. Some of these influencers' dietary restrictions can lead to eating disorders or malnourishment.

There's also a whole subset of fitness influencers who have had major, dangerous cosmetic procedures done to their body, making their workouts the least attributable factor to their physique. Unfortunately, not every person ingesting this deceptive content is aware of what's going on, making this high standard, unbeknownst to them, virtually impossible.

The popular cosmetic procedure in question is the BBL. The Brazilian butt lift — a physically taxing surgery for the doctor, as well as the patient, is rising at an alarming rate. The number of BBLs globally since 2015 has risen 77.6 percent, according to a survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and it is now the fastest-growing cosmetic procedure in the world.

And there's a direct correlation between the rise in BBLs and health and fitness influencing and misinformation.

Some influencers have resorted to scamming their customers more overtly. Dallas-based fitness influencer Brittany Dawn had run Brittany Dawn Fitness since 2014, with lucrative results. She had almost 1 million followers across all her platforms, which was a big deal at the time. Her profits mainly came from her digital workout plans and diet guides for women — but customers soon realized she never actually provided what was promised.

Her package included a 60-day package of workouts, bundled with personalized nutrition plans and "access to Dawn as a trainer by phone" in 2017 for $250. Eventually, it came out that she was pocketing the cash without holding up her end of the deal and then ghosting her customers. Her deception sparked a petition, with over 15,000 signatures, to send to the FTC to get her off the internet.

The Future of Health Influencing

Thankfully, the industry has been improving. Companies are now making mental health a KPI for customer satisfaction. Brands are partnering with influencers who are both fitness pros and mental health advocates and looking at mental health as an important territory for corporate responsibility.

The body positivity movement opened the doors for ethical fitness influencers of all shapes and sizes to instruct consumers. Louise Green, C.P.T. writes for SELF, "The principle of weight inclusivity is a fundamental reason I was finally able to embrace fitness sustainably. It started with that running coach, who trained and coached me for the first time in my life without ever mentioning my size, the need to burn calories, or any other weight- or body-related language. This resonated with me deeply because she was seeing me as an athlete in the making rather than a fat person trying to get my shit together, which is often how it felt I was being seen." 

The rise in fitness influence has had its ups and downs. Still, the industry is going in an inclusive direction everyone can participate in. Uninterrupted access to not-so-great influences has detrimental effects, but society is changing, and fitness is following along.

Photo Credit: John Arano via Unsplash

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