I swear I didn’t set out to write two articles in a row ranting about bad actors and bad advice in health and fitness. But, after another month deluged by ads for one week detoxes, two week jumpstarts, and three week resets, I figured I should address the why of this whole situation: why is this river of pseudo-scientific garbage so relentless? How are there so few people willing to set aside the hype and hyperbole to give honest, rational, and sane health and fitness advice?
The answer lies in the motivations of these would-be gurus. This is going to sound like a tautology, but it’s an important one: to give fitness advice for a living, you have to make a living giving fitness advice. Understanding how fitness professionals make money is key to understanding how they behave.
You can’t sell results
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
– Upton Sinclair
In an ideal world, everyone in the fitness industry would be focused purely on getting successful outcomes for customers and clients, on helping people in the way they want to be helped, on delivering the value that people are seeking.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money directly from getting successful fitness outcomes for people: all fitness results require the customer to take action outside of your control — even if you could invent a magic pill that would make difficult things like regular physical activity and intentional nutrition completely obsolete, people would have to remember to take the pill. Here in the real world, it’s even harder to value how much of the customer’s success you contributed to, and it’s generally hard to effectively price successful fitness outcomes.
Because of that, very few fitness professionals (if any) use a business model where they get paid based on their clients’ results. Most instead sell a proxy; something related to — but not the same as — successful fitness outcomes, and each of these proxy-based business models has its own set of incentives and motivations distinct from a pure results-based model.
That misalignment of incentives is what leads to shitty behavior and garbage fitness advice. When you make a living selling a proxy that’s only semi-related to the thing your customer actually wants, the market can create conflicts of interest that force you to choose between selling that proxy well and giving the customer the thing they actually want — and most people will choose to stay in business and accept worse results for their customers.
What those conflicts of interest are, and how hard they are to resist, depends mostly on which proxy is being sold in lieu of successful fitness results.
Four ways to make money giving fitness advice
By my count, there are four main proxies for results that fitness professionals sell. They are not mutually exclusive; many fitness professionals dabble in more than one. They are:
This includes obvious fitness services like access to equipment, personal training and sport-specific coaching, and also less obvious ones like sports psychology.
Examples: Personal trainers, gyms, yoga teachers, skill coaches, strength & conditioning coaches.
Anyone offering non-personalized information like books, seminars, courses, generic workout templates, and workout tapes all fit here. (This is our business model here at The Road Warrior.) Almost all “app-based services” are much closer to this category than a true service — they’re normally not much more than a course or a workout template plus a calendar. Even the ones that use some sort of “personalization” or “human coach” scheme are incented to do as little as possible in this department, because both avenues mean more employees and that means less profit.
Examples: P90x and the rest of the Beachbody empire, Examine.com, Nike Training Club, Kayla Itsines/BBG.
In the last ten or fifteen years, marketers have started to use the word “product” to refer to services, software, and information products — but in this case, we’re specifically referring to physical products like workout equipment and supplements.
Examples: Bulletproof, Rogue, Onnit, GNC, Instagram Detox Teas.
Many people in fitness use attention as a means to sell products, services, or information, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is people who sell attention itself.: Normally, they make their money from advertising or selling other people’s products or information.
Examples: MindBodyGreen, Greatist, Men’s Health, many bloggers and vloggers.
Each of these business models has its own incentives separate from getting good fitness results for customers — and therefore leads to its own kind of bad behavior.
People and business that sell services are ultimately selling their time. This can cause issues in two ways, depending on how they’re selling that time. Salaried workers have negotiated the sale of fixed amount of time every week for a fixed rate and are expected to be present for that fixed amount of time. In a salaried model, you run the risk of salaried fitness professionals slacking off and not putting their full effort into providing coaching and advice. Fitness professional who charge hourly, on the other hand, only make money when they’re providing services — so they’re incentivized to keep people busy and sell more time/sessions than are strictly necessary for someone to reach their goals.
Ever wonder why every workout planned by a personal trainer takes exactly an hour? It’s because they bill by the hour, and so they’re going to keep you busy for an hour so you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, even if you could get the same result with thirty minutes of work. Similarly, many trainers will encourage clients to work out four, five, or even seven times per week, even if the client could get the same or similar results only training 3 days per week, because every additional session booked is more money in the trainer’s pocket.
On the plus side, hourly service sellers get most of their customers from referrals and word-of-mouth, and most word-of-mouth referrals come from potential customers asking current customers how they got their results. This means hourly service sellers are strongly incentivized to make sure clients get results — just maybe not in the most efficient or effective way.
Similarly, salaried service sellers are ultimately being hired by an organization to get results — and so while the feedback loop might be longer and there might be more places to hide, a lack of results will eventually be noticed and corrected.
Gyms are also technically selling a service, but their service is different from most other fitness services: they are selling you access to a gym, which means they’re indirectly selling the maintenance and upkeep of that space and equipment (and in some contexts, access to classes). The economic incentives for gyms are their own special kind of bad, which I’ve written about in more detail here. The short version: to a gym, the best possible gym goer is one who pays their membership fee every month and never shows up.
People and business who sell information also fundamentally rely on people getting results and using those results to prove the value of the information they sell. But, because of the scale at which they work, information sellers can get away with a lot of nonsense thanks to survivorship bias.
Survivorship bias is the logical fallacy of only focusing on people who survived some kind of selection process, without taking into account the people who didn’t survive. Information sellers often rely on testimonials and before-and-after shots to prove the effectiveness of what they’re selling, but how many people had to try the the program/routine/regimen/diet to get the five success stories on the sales page? 100? 1000? 10,000?
The people shown are often the ones who got the best possible results, but they’re presented as a representation of the results that the program offers — confusing the best case scenario with the average result, and leading to that classic phrase: “results not typical.”
Unfortunately, there’s a strong monetary incentive for information sellers to use this kind of tactic and not a lot of pressure to reign in this flavor of bullshit. Customers tend to blame themselves for not following a plan or program, viewing it as a failure of their willpower rather than a failure of the information seller to create an easy-to-stick-to program — and that allows information sellers get away with selling unrealistic or impossible-to-follow programs and then blame others when they don’t work. As long as a few people are able to get results, they’re able to keep selling their information.
This is largely the space that Coleman and I work in.
Our model is based on what we think the most ethical way to approach selling information: give a bunch of it away for free so people can try it themselves, achieve some success, and then hopefully trust us enough to buy our premium material.
One of the many reasons we like this model is that the thing being sold is as much editing and synthesis as it is net-new information. There are no magic secrets to buy. You can find, test, and synthesize the information we provide yourself. It’s just easier to buy our version of the information, because it’s a more condensed and well-vetted version of that information, often tailored to a specific population (in our case busy, traveling professionals).
Most of our favorite information sellers in the also space work this way: Examine.com, Martin Berkhan, Greg Nuckols and the team at Breaking Muscle/MASS, Megsquats, and Steve Kamb over at Nerd Fitness (which is a great example of someone working in multiple models).
People selling products often get a bad rap, for good reason. While not everyone does this, the most effective version of a product-based business model relies on convincing people that they, themselves, are not good enough — that to achieve success, they need whatever product is being sold. Believe me when I tell you: it’s not true.
There are plenty of supplements and pieces of exercise equipment that can help you reach your goals faster or more efficiently, but barring things like steroids, anything you can achieve with exercise equipment and supplements you can achieve with your body, something to do pull-ups from, and a good grocery store.
Because all (legal) products are basically optional, product sellers are incentivized to exaggerate the benefits of their products. Many product sellers claim that success is only possible when you buy from them, or that their product will make a difficult process simple and effort-free. Avoid this type of product seller. Product business that instead compete on quality — on things like purity in supplements or durability in workout equipment — are usually the more reputable ones.
This business model is different from all the other ones I’ve talked about so far, because in this one, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.
Large health and fitness media companies make their money by placing ads next to the content they give away, functionally selling your attention to the highest bidder. Because of this, they need as much attention as possible, meaning they’re incentivized to make things confusing, to give out partial information, and to provide endless “tips and tricks” of dubious value to keep you coming back over and over again.
It’s not like you can’t find good information in places like this — it’s just that the way they make money is so far removed from fitness success that getting good outcomes for the readers is an afterthought. They care about getting good fitness outcomes in as much as getting good fitness outcomes convinces people to come back and continue reading/watching/listening to their stuff, but ultimately they are beholden to they advertisers that pay their bills, not the people who they are ostensibly trying to help. Evaluate everything they say carefully.
Navigating the fitness industry
So if every fitness professional is incentivized to act in a way that’s outside of the best interest of their customers (even us, to an extent — we could always give away the book), how do you know who to trust?
It’s not an easy question to answer, but you can start by looking at what proxy for success they’re selling. I ordered the four models in this article by how strong the incentives to act against the interests of customers are, from weakest to strongest. Absent of other information, I would trust service providers the most and attention-sellers the least.
But also, there are good and honest and upright and moral actors in every single one of these categories. When you come across someone new (again, including us!), you have to engage critically with the advice they’re giving. Ask yourself:
- How do they make their money? Why are they giving this advice?
- What proxy for success are they actually selling? What actions are they incentivized to take because of that?
- What would happen if they gave bad advice? Would anyone find out? Would they see repercussions?
- Are they claiming that their service/information/product is the only way to achieve success? (It’s not)
- Are they claiming they have a secret system or “hack” that only they know? (They don’t)
- Does their solution/information/product require no effort on my part? (It doesn’t)
Ultimately, health and fitness are complicated topics, but they’re not impossible to understand. There isn’t much by way of secrets or weird tricks. Success is by no means impossible, but it requires diligent mental and physical effort that no one can do for you.
All that to say: if someone is giving advice that seems seems too good to be true, it probably is.