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It’s an understatement to say the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the fitness industry hard. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that more than 38,000 clubs and studios have been forced to shut down because of the virus, leaving at least 500,000 people without a job. And even when (if?) those gyms reopen, it will likely be to fewer members. According to one survey, nearly 40 per cent of faithfully devoted gym-goers will be switching to at-home fitness options in 2021.

Trainers everywhere have been forced to pivot. The marketplace has shifted almost entirely to the digital realm, which means having a positive online presence is more important than ever. It’s with this in mind that, just as summer settled into place, I did something that would have been unthinkable only six months prior. I joined Instagram.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with social media ever since I opened my first Facebook account way back in the olden days of 2007. It was great being able to stay in touch with high-school friends and extended family. What I couldn’t stand — and still can’t — is the endless bickering, the rude behaviour, the myopic (and often irrelevant) views of society that are spewed forth in the comments section.

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As fitness began to play a bigger role in my life, I started following more coaches, more athletes, more dietitians. I wanted to learn as much as I could from the people who paved the way, but in the process I left the front door open for the troll army to invade. My social feeds degraded at an alarming rate. Every day I’d see established trainers with industry-wide respect being challenged by keyboard coaches looking for attention. Even my own behaviour took a nosedive.

It was while arguing with someone for hours on Twitter over the death of Cecil the lion and the merits of veganism that I reached my breaking point. The next morning, feeling like an alcoholic wallowing in a massive shame-over, I deactivated all of my accounts and quit social media cold turkey. That was 2015.

Now I’m back, and while the medium has changed (Instagram is brand new to me) nothing much else has. With no place else to go, bored gym bros and desperate trainers are sharing more workouts, training tips and diet advice than at any time in history. The Insta-crowd may sing in a slightly kinder tone than their Twitter counterparts, but the song remains the same.

“You’re doing it wrong”, they chirp. “Also, look at my abs.”

Maybe it’s because of this rabid online feeding frenzy that I see more veteran trainers — trainers with years of pre-internet experience and sound reputations — wading out into the weird but lucrative waters of the life-coaching world. The trainer whose blog was mostly responsible for me becoming a fitness writer now devotes himself almost exclusively to dispensing folksy-style wisdom. His podcast can still be a valuable resource, but it’s becoming less and less about training, and more about self-help.

What irritates me most about this influx of “influencers” is the same thing that holds the fitness and health industry back as a whole. There’s little in the way of regulation or oversight, nothing to prevent anyone from branding themselves as a wellness coach or lifestyle guru. In fact, the whole social-media echo chamber is built on this sort of self-indulgence — you come on my podcast, I’ll come on yours; you retweet my video, I’ll retweet yours. Likes beget more likes, regardless of the content’s quality or accuracy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Getting in shape, eating healthy, enjoying your life — none of these concepts should be too difficult to wrap your head around. Walk more than you sit; eat lots of plants, drink lots of water and, if you lift weights, consider adding a protein shake to your diet. As for how to enjoy your life, I can’t help you there, but a quick glance at my Instagram feed shows that there’s no shortage of guys who forgot to put on shirts and are willing to sell you their secrets.

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But of course, we are the curators of our own online lives. The algorithms may be in charge, but we have control over what they show us. Last week I audited my Instagram account, unfollowed everyone who falls under the “influencer” banner, anyone whose income is generated by making people feel crappy about not waking up at 4:30 a.m. to drink bone broth and then meditate under a sun lamp.

I encourage you to do the same.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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