Insights

The timely schizophrenia of digital fitness

Digital Strategist
Valtech France

January 20, 2016

I dove into fitness 3 years ago with the primary goal of losing weight, and I was quickly blown away by all the different ways to go: YouTube videos, Facebook programs, eBooks, etc. It took me a while to make an educated choice and join what would become a real “fitness family”. I soon got passionate about the power and influence of digital in this community and its members’ journey. As I am making my first steps as a young digital strategist, I took to heart retracing my steps and writing down my impressions about this gripping, paradoxical world.

A matter of time

The freshly grounded consultant slash pervasive digital-native that I am is ever advocating immersive and seamless experiences. Social media plays a big role in this process, as it makes it possible for anyone to be on stage and fulfill their need for recognition. Digital in general has been making our day-to-day easy and fickle, but it has also changed our conception of time. Instantaneity is our new paradigm. On paper, this new order seems to differ quite a lot from the general conception of fitness. Fitness has always been an intimate, performance-based discipline. Pain, self-transcendence and consistency have always been conditions to reach real progress, real satisfaction.

We are being pushed to live in a hyperactive present, and studies keep telling us this is keeping the youth from caring less and less about the past - or the future. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz describes this phenomenon by saying we are stuck - trapped in a hysterical present, through omnipresent attention and omnipotent technology.

The fitness movement holds a very interesting place in this setting, because of its inherent temporality, the commitment it requires and the introspection it involves. Could fitness be a way for digital-natives to reconnect with their future?

Fitness communities are feudal societies

The fitness world has embraced social media wholeheartedly and has been carrying a resounding success on Instagram, where you will find the most vocal preachers of inner wellness and the most passionate community.

Fitness used to be an intimate activity that has evolved into an increasingly staged lifestyle. When I got started, I was following fitness guru Kayla Itsines who had succeeded in building a huge community called “BBG Community” or “Kayla’s Army”, where her followers support one another. It is a complex and very specific community with its own vocabulary (#deathbykayla #bbgsister #thekaylamovment), its own codes (#kaylapose) and its own hierarchy. The most impressive transformations are featured on Kayla’s page, which counts 4 million followers. Think of a queen dubbing her most successful and loyal knights. What I found essential in the BBG community was that it is all about empowering one another: your body type does not matter. If you are working out hard and eating healthy, you will find support.

Food is a must when it comes to fitness, and we know how much the Internet likes food

You have surely read it many times: people are getting increasingly aware of what they put in their body and how to fuel it properly. Fitness fans are mostly, if not all, nutrition-savvy users. Wearables and apps can help you understand, analyze and control your everyday diet and will adapt to your goals (i.e. weight loss, muscle gains). Nutrition, from basic to advanced knowledge, has been democratized and now accessible everywhere. Calories don’t matter anymore. Carbs are no longer prohibited. Processed food is banished, sugar thrown to trash, vegetarians are turning vegan, and protein has become the fit Instagrammer’s best friend – but don’t confuse it with bodybuilding or you will get your cyber-ass kicked. To some extent, the fitness community is all about breaking stereotypes one by one and rebuilding knowledge.

#strongnotskinny, the semantic whiplash

This hashtag, among many others, spread like wildfire (about 2 millions mentions on IG) within the community, promoting a general healthy mindset that no longer focuses on looking good (i.e. skinny) but on inner wellness and natural state.

I have seen many girls quit their career and become a “PT” (Personal Trainer) or a nutritionist with the desire to help others holistically. They were inspired through social media and got rewarded for their efforts, so they decided to take advantage of this new “weapon” and embraced both an inspiring and inspired life.

Your success defined by your numbers

Digital brought isolated fitness addicts together. Suffering together brings an intense form of solidarity, supporting others and witnessing their progress. Having an audience forces you to be accountable, to be consistent. Now that performance trackers are widespread, anyone can prove the authenticity of their performance. Of course you could choose not to post your weekend binges or on the contrary post about the leg training that you didn’t do. However the more real and honest you are the more people can relate. “Failure is a part of success” is a quote you will often see on fit girls’ social accounts, which corroborates this deeply rooted need for accountability and truthfulness.

Because they are capable of carrying inspiration as well as turning self-transcendence into narcissism, digital shares common points with fitness: they are both numbers-driven lifestyles orbiting around hedonism. One is looking for pleasurable experiences and the other for the pursuit of accomplishment, satisfaction and self-fulfillment.

The dark side of digital fitness addicts

As I got serious about my workout and more involved in the community, I experienced a strange obsession: logging my workout and meals everyday became imperative. So did posting the right photo on my Instagram, hoping it would get at least 200 likes. I started telling my friends I was busy and couldn’t see them because I HAD to work out. I started watching people follow me just so I would follow them back. Being healthy turned into an unhealthy habit, and it felt like real pressure, stress to not live up to the image I built, and isolation. Luckily I realized how twisted this was and took a step back to re-consider what my healthy lifestyle should be and why.

The fitness community is paved with institutional brands and rising stars

Piercing through this community is a key topic for many brands, for its content are highly aspirational – which means maximum engagement, and its gurus are top influencers and trendsetters. Brands from many different industries, from high-end sleek looking tech to elegant active-wear, not to mention food and drinks, are in the race to make it in our everyday life through digital marketing. Many are called but few are chosen. Here are a couple tips that could help you navigate through the craze.

Brand-built inspirational personality

The first option is to create an official influencer from scratch: personifying the brand so that people can relate to more than a business. By deflecting fans’ attention to a fallible human, the brand will connect and earn trust more easily. It is Nike’s strategy to spot athletes and make them an ambassador for the whole category. Take for instance @kirsty_godso who was titled “Nike Master Trainer”: she shares her workouts, fashion (obviously Nike products) and travels. Her account is a mix of professional and smartphone-taken photos.

Passion-focused collaborations

The second option is to activate an influencer through transparent collaborations that would benefit to or match with their fans. It is the case of @rrayme who almost always does products placement posts whether it is food, fashion or technology. She is transparent about her collaborations that usually profit her fans with coupons or special offers. In their own way, fitness fans have built a lot of knowledge around personal branding and kind of are marketing experts, which is why they will welcome a transparent marketing campaign.

The insight here is that no matter the approach, brands and influencers need to substantiate their expertise and their authenticity.

A different perspective for the younger generations

Going full-speed in the phenomenon that is digital fitness, like I did, might make you a little schizophrenic. You will embrace the potentially obsessive lifestyle the community sets, its versatility, its infinite thirst for progress and numbers and all the support it will bring you.

But at the same time it will address something deep within you, this fundamental and intimate need for self-transcendence and introspection. You will have moments when you are able to disconnect and get another sense of time. Moments when you will escape this hysteria digital created in our present and into which younger generations were born. There will be times when self-transcendence will allow you to take a step back and give you a different perspective on your future. And times like these, for a generation like ours, are worth more than likes.