Looking for (fitness) love in all the wrong places.

I’m a researcher by trade, so in the early days of Kai, we did a lot of research.

In total, we spent around 50 hours interviewing everyday folks about their fitness goals, their lives, and their struggles (using a template like this, which I highly recommend for ethnographic interviewing).

That, combined with the 5 years I’ve spent personally coaching people, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve talked to a lot of people about their fitness goals.

What have I learned?

Well, for starters, true “progress” in fitness is never purely physical, it’s also mental, emotional, and behavioral. The people who succeed are usually the people who have some kind of “coach” or guide on their fitness journey, someone who is able to demonstrate both empathy (I know you and I care about you) and authority (I know what I’m doing and I can actually help you).

Thing is, when we want to get in shape, we don’t typically look for a coach. Instead, we typically go to one of three places: our friends, subject-matter experts, and, more recently, celebrity influencers.

And while friends, experts, and influencers can all be helpful on your fitness journey, there are also some pretty serious drawbacks to each.

A friend naturally has empathy, but lacks authority.

Your friends already know at least some important things about you and where you’re coming from. There’s trust there. Sure they might have more fitness knowledge than you (or at least better genetics), but their main benefit is that they know you, and so they can anticipate your needs.

It can be a problem, though, when your friend is forced to choose between being your friend and being your coach.

It’s less about how long you’ve known them, and more about the nature of the relationship.

The relationship of trainer to trainee is one-sided by design. The co-dependance that makes a friendship, partnership, or marriage successful can make a coaching relationship completely ineffective.

Add to that: if your friend feels they have to choose between your feelings and that last set of burpees (or a boozy night out on the town with you), what will they choose? And will they actually have enough time to really devote to listening to you, teaching you, being there when you need them?

(Some personal trainers you hire at your local gym can also unexpectedly fall into the “friend category.” I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard of the gym-supplied personal trainer becoming a friend, and therefore becoming a less effective trainer.)

Experts have authority, but don’t know you or your unique situation.

They probably have an impressive-sounding degree with lots of combinations of letters after their name. Maybe they have a couple bestsellers in their chosen field, or a popular blog with insightful takes on modern approaches to goals like yours. Regardless, they likely have a great deal of expertise from years and years of concentrated study.

But expertise, by its very nature, also tends to be very narrow. I don’t care what school you go to, you can’t get a degree in helping Jonathan lose some weight and feel better about himself. Kinesiology is a fancy-sounding word that has a lot to do with muscles but not a lot to do with the psychology of motivation and behavior change.

A 10,000-hour expert on a particular diet isn’t going to do you much good unless that diet turns out to be a good fit for you and your life.

It also doesn’t help that the average scientific paper is written on a subject that has very little to do with how to you’re going to get to the gym consistently. And the diet and exercise marketplace is not so much scientific as it is “scienc-y” — scientific-sounding enough to sell, but also extremely biased in favor of the seller.

Ben Goldacre, a British physician, academic and science writer, wrote a fantastic book called Bad Science that I highly recommend, and his excerpt on “nutritionism” is particularly apt here:

We will see this time and again, on a grander scale, in the work of dubious healthcare practitioners and specifically in the field of “nutritionism,” because scientific knowledge–and sensible dietary advice–are free and in the public domain. Anyone can use it, understand it, sell it, or simply give it away. Most people know what constitutes a healthy diet already. If you want to make money out of it, you have to make a space for yourself in the market, and to do this, you must overcomplicate it, attach your own dubious stamp.
(Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, pg 20).

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of “over-complication” in exercise and nutrition. The main reason to avoid putting your faith in an expert in any particular diet or exercise regime is that they actually have a lot to lose if it doesn’t work — and rather than admit a flaw in their life’s work, they’ll probably just blame you for not sticking with it.

Certainly, a fair amount of “expertise” is required to help you reach your fitness goals. But I would argue the rather than looking for an expert in Keto or Intermittent Fasting or German Volume Training (yes that’s a real thing), you should instead be looking for someone who’s willing to become an expert in you — your life, your hopes, your struggles.

Influencers have… influence?

I’m not that old (italics necessary after age 30), but I seem to remember a time before influencers. It used to be there were just celebrities selling things, and then there were celebrities selling things who we actually listened to. Now, we seem to be suddenly overrun with this new thing called an “influencer.” Never have there been so many “influencers” wielding so little actual influence in our lives.

I recently sat in an hour-long presentation about how there are actually many different tiers of influencers, from a micro- all the way up to to a mega-influencer. In this presentation I learned lots of tips and tricks for properly “wooing” and “leveraging” influencers, all of which makes it sound less like I’m trying to build a brand and more like I’m trying to catch a particularly rare Pokémon.

Fitness influencers are an especially troublesome development, since despite their followings, they’re usually not really helping anyone get fit. When I talk to the average person trying to make changes in their life (which I do weekly in my role at Kai), I mostly hear things like “unattainable” and “intimidating” and “makes me feel even worse.” In that sense, following a fitness influencer is actually more a form of self-shaming than it is a source of self-motivation.

Looking great is not a crime, but trying to tell me that looking at how good you look is somehow going to help me look good probably should be.

I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole on Fitness Influencers, but I can sum up my feelings pretty easily: if someone judges their worth (and makes their living) based on how many followers they have, they’re probably not someone you want to be following.

You have value. Spend your time and money on someone who consistently makes you feel like a hero, rather than someone who always insists on making the story about themselves.

So if all these types of help are flawed, then what’s the solution?

I’m glad you asked. I’m a big fan of graphs, so here’s one that might help land the plane (get it?):

Kai is a guide on your fitness journey.jpg

Finding the help you need for your fitness or health goals is about balance. You need someone who not only knows the way, but cares enough to help you navigate all the obstacles you’ll face along the way.

Again, the necessary traits for a great “guide” for your fitness journey are authority — what they know, where they’ve been, how much you trust their experience — and empathy — how much they actually care about you, how much they listen, and the quality of the questions they ask.

When looking for help on your fitness journey, use this as your guide.

  • Maximum empathytruly cares about me and is always there for me friend-ness, AND
  • Maximum authorityreally knows their stuff expert-nes), BUT
  • Minimum self-interest: self-promoting, always selling, look-at-me influencer-ness

I’m not saying that it’s easy to find. And even if you do find it, it’s probably going to be expensive. Someone who truly possesses all the necessary traits of a “trusted guide” is rare, so they’re probably not having any issue finding clients.

But, if you’re ready for a coach who truly cares, and you don’t want to break the bank, check out my company, Kai Coach. Your body (and your wallet) will thank you.

Jonathan Smith