Why The Fitness Industry is Broken

The Fitness Summit vs. The Broken Industry

I just came back from The Fitness Summit in Kansas City. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a yearly summit that takes place in Kansas City featuring lectures from the world’s best fitness folks, such as Eric Cressey, Alan Aragon, and Mike Nelson. These lecturers showed incredible insight in the realm of exercise and nutrition by combining science and their extensive real-world experience.

I was going to use this post-summit blog post in order to go through the highlights, but I have a much more important message in mind.

These last two years with Fitocracy have given my partner Brian and I an amazing look at the fitness industry – perhaps one of the most holistic. We’ve been able to observe the way people approach exercise, the obesity problem, and the state of the fitness industry.

This industry is incredibly broken. It’s been unable to help a majority of people live healthier lives.

The dichotomy between The Fitness Summit’s awesomeness and the industry’s brokenness made me ponder. During the plane ride back and into the next day I racked my brains, creating a brain dump of two years worth of insight around fitness failure.

I wrote all my thoughts down, categorized, sorted, and categorized again. When I finished, I was shocked by what I saw – with half a page, I could list the phenomena that account for almost every “failed” fitness persona.

Why The Industry is Broken

There are a few things at play that make “failure” the norm in fitness. I’ll categorize them here and then discuss.

1. The Exercise Perception Paradox

People are horrible judges of exercise and diet efficacy. Basically, “killing yourself at the gym” yields no additional benefit.

What you feel is a lie

Cardio: Vomit-inducing workouts that make you feel like death are no better for weight loss than less intense workouts.

Strength training: Going to failure to the point of pain and discomfort will not lead to a better workout. Doing a set of bicep curls to failure on a set, then hitting rep after rep past failure will hurt overall muscle hypertrophy, not help.

By itself, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that…

People assume that more pain means a better workout

This tends to be propagated by media and “pain” culture, probably because of the likes of The Biggest Loser. It’s natural; everyone wants to feel “hardcore.”

If that isn’t the worst part, your body lies too…

Your body is a scumbag

Your body gives you the illusion of long-term success via short-term cues that feel exactly the same as long-term results.

Here are two examples.

“The pump” – Muscles temporarily swell after a workout. This doesn’t necessarily mean the muscle has been set up for long-term growth.

“The whoosh effect” – An initial weight loss drop is usually seen at the start of a diet. (can be especially visible after crash dieting or low-carb dieting) This weight is “water weight” (namely, the water that accompanies a loss of glycogen) and doesn’t necessarily predict long term diet success.

And what happens when you engage in brutal, painful exercise that doesn’t necessarily improve your fitness?

2. The illusion of Difficulty

People expend great amount of resources (willpower, money, time) with very little to show. They then, wrongly, conclude that fitness is extremely difficult.

The assumption that fitness failures stem from lack of willpower

People will often assume that fitness success relies purely on willpower. In reality, willpower is a finite resource and will never lead to success by itself; you need to create a positive feedback loop. I discuss this at length here.

There is no amount of willpower will make you run every morning if you hate running.

The assumption that external forces will forever prevent one from getting fit

The excuses of “poor genetics” and “not enough time” are often blamed for fitness failures. More often than not, this conclusion stems from failing a fitness program that was set up for failure.

3. Reductionists

This is the assumption that the solution to fitness can be reduced to something extremely simple – such as the popular recommendation to “eat less, move more” or “carbohydrates cause obesity” – and that everyone should attain it.

Telling an obese person to “eat less, move more” is like telling a depressed person to “stop being so sad.”

When one takes a reductionist point of view, they lack the perspective that would otherwise cause them to acquire knowledge and improve. If their plan fails (“eat less, move more always does”) it leads to a downward spiral of self-image. After all, how could they have failed something so simple?

4. The Chase for the Fitness Holy Grail

This is the assumption that you will somehow finally make the fitness leap by keeping a list of tips or finding the one special “trick” that you’ve been missing all along.

These people are often burned out from previous fitness failures and are now turning towards “secrets,” “tips,” “tricks,” “hacks,” “this one weird rule,” etc.

Ever wonder why articles along the lines of “The Secret to Fitness is this One Weird Tip” are so numerous? It’s because people click on them. (You’ll be happy to know that I opted against naming this article “The 7 Reasons The Fitness Industry is Broken.”)

Those who fall victim to this fallacy assume that simply executing enough tips or secrets will lead to success, because “everything adds up.” This is not true.

5. Trigger Happy Evangelists

When things do seem to work, there is a knee-jerk desire for people to become strong advocates. Observe the following conversation of someone who falls victim to the exercise perception paradox.

“Oh man, p90x was dope. I was so pumped and sore after my first workout. You should try it for your weight loss.”

People want to tell everyone about a program that seems to work – it may not actually work in the long run. This is why some of the worst programs have the highest virality.

6. Infallibility of Authority Figures

The near-universal inclination to believe a “health expert” like Dr. Oz, an athlete like Reggie Bush, or anyone with “Dr.” in front of their name, even if the PhD is unrelated.

In reality, most medical doctors actually know very little about nutrition, athletes who hit the genetic lottery can do nearly anything to get fit, and someone with a PhD in physics has no business claiming that it relates to exercise or nutritional science.

7. Incentivized Failure

This is the most nefarious one of all.

Trainers, programs, and products are incentivized to produce short-term perception of effectiveness, not long-term outcome. Whether it’s the gym that wants you to sign up in January and never return (that’s how they stay in business), the trainer who tricks you into grueling sessions to “fool” you into thinking he’s giving you a great workout, or the app that only gets paid when you miss the gym, almost the entire industry is designed to see you fail in the long run.

The easiest way to take your money in the short term is to make you fail in the long term. The misalignment of incentives is the epitome of the broken industry.

Examples in Action

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Sally, the 26-year-old woman with low self esteem, who’s never been able to lose weight:

  • Believes she just needs to “eat less, move more” (3)
  • Attends her gym’s grueling cardio classes (1)
  • Gets incredibly hungry, binge eats, then blames constant lack of willpower (2)

Peter, the tech entrepreneur who hears about a magical diet called Paleo:

  • Hears that it’s actually carbohydrates that make people fat (3)
  • Due to being highly insulin sensitive, Peter responds poorly to the diet but mistakes this for being hardcore (1)
  • Never sustains the diet, then blames constant lack of willpower (2)

Tim, the sports nut who constantly buys Terrell Owens equipment and never loses weight:

  • Buys Terrell Owen’s “resistance band” program (6)
  • Feels a pump and immediately tells others about it (1, 5)
  • Doesn’t actually see progress, loses interest. Feels like he’ll never have enough time for fitness (2)

Jackie, the midwestern soccer mom and Dr. Oz fan:

  • Believes everything that Dr. Oz says (6)
  • Buys Acai Berry, which she heard about from Dr. Oz, from the drug store (7)
  • Doesn’t see progress and gives up due to her bad genetics (2)

Joe, the overweight, 45-year-old father of three:

  • Hears about Crossfit from a vocal friend (5)
  • Has a grueling workout, tells his friends (1)
  • Doesn’t lose weight, gives up on exercise because he assumes he’ll “never have the time” (2)
  • Only partakes fitness “hacks” (perpetually 4)

These seven items somehow describe the failed fitness lifecycles of almost every “persona” that I’ve seen.

In many of these examples, the individual is the first point of failure. I wrote about this in my previous post – the lack of humility, compassion, and curiosity is usually to blame at the individual level.

But failure across the person’s entire life cycle, and the industry overall, requires more players than just one. Otherwise, the fitness industry wouldn’t be so broken.

The Culprit?

I usually think that industry negativity should be kept to a minimum, but here’s why these people need to be called out: transparency is the only way to fix the problem of fixing the industry.

And fixing the industry is one of the main missions of Fitocracy. (You can already see how on the site, but exact details probably belong in a future post.)

Reasons 1 through 6 set the stage for a market full of vulnerable pockets, but two types of people are systematically perpetuating a cycle of fitness failures:

1. People who appeal to their status as an “authority,” despite knowing little about fitness. They’ll often use the “Dr.” in front of their name as a pure marketing tool.

These people are charlatans; their PhDs or MDs are unrelated, except to help them sell you their products.

2. Creators of products and services that optimize for short-term monetization while masquerading as purchases designed to change your life.

These are the people perpetuating the cycle of fitness failure. They make people think that failure is the norm.

How You Can Help Fix the Industry

Now, back to the Fitness Summit.

A friend of mine posted that the Summit gives her “hope” for fitness. Despite my rant above, I tend to agree.

For example, I had a great conversation with the guys at Examine.com. Arguably, there’s no part of fitness that’s more broken than the supplement industry, and they’re passionate about bringing transparency to this space.

There are good guys (and gals!) in the industry. They are open-minded, espouse evidenced-based fitness, and aren’t in the industry to sell you something.

Unfortunately, people like Alan Aragon tends to garner less household brand awareness than someone like Tony Horton.

You can change that by finding people who are committed to ethics and help them achieve awareness by reading and sharing their work. By making people aware of these issues and their culprits, people will have a better chance against falling victim.

We’re doing our part to change the industry with Fitocracy.

In the meantime, make sure to throw that shake weight in the garbage.

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