I was running across an overpass above the Dan Ryan Expressway, 3.2 miles away from the Chicago Marathon finish line, when I felt the snap, an almost cartoonish pop in my right knee. I hobbled along the rest of the course while a pain climbed up my thigh before tucking itself in deep into my hip, where it stayed for weeks. By the homestretch, I was in tears. My time was blown, and I knew something in my body was, too.
In the months leading up to that race, I was doing everything right, or so I thought. I ate pasta, boxes of it. I got massages. I practiced visualization. I took goddamn ice baths. But what hurt the most was that I put in the work and I still got injured.
When my knee only worsened, I did something I should've done half a year prior: I made an appointment to see a physical therapist. She spent four months getting me back on my feet and helping me heal and understand what I (unknowingly) omitted from my training.
The gist of my IT band injury, I learned, was that I did too much and at once, not enough. I over-exercised, and my body was under great duress because of it. It's a common concern among recreational athletes, many of whom don't know from where to source their instruction, some of which needs to be quite nuanced. And often, we can't help but turn to Instagram, which now offers up a seemingly endless feed of fitness content from influencers who have racked up followings the size of the population of Hong Kong.
This proliferation of exercise is patently a good thing, especially here in the U.S. But it starts to get murky when Instagram, which has already developed a reputation for glossy inauthenticity, can perpetuate a fitness ideal that isn't exactly comprehensive.
"I think the majority of my patients, the healthy ones, are in their minds doing the right thing," says Amanda Scheer, the physical therapist with whom I worked after my injury. She describes me pointedly and perfectly.
"They're going to the gym every day," says Scheer. "They're signing up for races and they're training. But there's always something that gets forgotten."
At press time, the five powerhouse athletic brands — Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Puma and Reebok — had a collective 10.4 million followers across their women-specific Instagram accounts. These feeds don't make mention of physical therapy, and from a purely business perspective, why should they? They're on Instagram to market their products to women like me, not to tell me see a physician before attempting any form of exercise. Fitness influencers, or fitfluencers, can be more forthcoming, but for some, their aspirational bottom line is still the same.
Lisa Moskovitz, a registered dietician and the CEO and founder of The NY Nutrition Group, tells me that many of her clients initially come to her confused by what they're seeing on social media, whether "they should be doing this plan or this plan." Take, for instance, Kayla Itsines's Bikini Body Guide, or BBG. Itsines's PDF guides cost $52 and can be reinforced by a $20-per-month Sweat With Kayla app, and then there's her own pervasive Instagram presence. With 7 million followers and 5,300 posts, the @kayla_itsines handle serves as a homebase for her "Kayla's Army," some of whom have even been featured on Itsines's feed with a composite of themselves before and after using her program.
"I think people easily buy into things they see and results they're seeing from this diet shake or this exercise program," says Moskovitz. "But they're forgetting all the wonderful technology that allows us to Photoshop and edit and do this and that."
A vast majority of fitfluencers are training at a near-professional level and supplement their workouts with the appropriate activities. Nicole Loher, who works as a creative strategist for Small Girls PR by day, competed in her first triathlon in April 2016 and finished fourth in her age group. She's been hooked ever since. You know this, of course, if you're one of the 14,000 users who follow her on Instagram, where you can find her discussing the ins and outs of her training in extensive detail.
As a triathlete, she trains in three different mediums to reflect the three stages of the race. She also has a support group whom she jokingly calls her "people," including a nutritionist, a swim coach and a physical therapist. In the case of the latter, she goes purely for tune-ups, about once a week, "just to make sure my body's moving the way it should be."
Loher's approach to physical therapy is incredibly healthy and one Scheer condones for her own patients. Other full-time fitness experts, like Lauren Ashley Duhamel (@lifeoflaurenashley) — who teaches Legs by Lauren at Studio B in New York City, with her workouts available on the Fitner app — rely on more high-tech practices for their recovery. Duhamel likes to put in 45 minutes a week at Higher Dose, a hip, fashion crowd-beloved infrared sauna in New York City's East Village.
"When I leave I really do feel uplifted," says Duhamel. "I feel lighter. I feel like it's very good for anti-inflammation, healing your muscles." Cryotherapy, which involves momentarily submerging yourself in a machine that emits nitrogen-iced air at sub-zero temperatures, is also popular.
But Duhamel's favorite method of recovery comes via the TheraGun, a handheld, battery-operated — and at $599, very expensive — "muscle management device" that the members-only fitness studio to which she belongs, S10 Training, carries. For the purposes of releasing muscle tension, the TheraGun is highly effective, but nothing does the job better than rest. That's something Scheer likes to stress to patients, many of whom see her for reasons similar to mine.
"I think too much of a good thing is never a good thing. If you're only doing one activity and you're not addressing the fact that you've used your muscles so intensely by strengthening and stretching, you can't perform optimally," says Scheer. "Sometimes it takes injury to realize that you've done too much in one direction and not enough of the auxiliary things to help out."
Alex Silver-Fagan, a fitness professional and official Nike coach represented by Wilhelmina, recently adjusted her personal training schedule to take one day off throughout the week. She explains that she used to stack her schedule with everything from lifting to hot yoga throughout the day, but that came at a price. "I never felt good, and my body was never responding. I was bloated and just plain stressed, and I was holding on to body fat," she says.
Since working some breaks into her routine, Silver-Fagan has found that her body actually responds better to her training; she gets leaner and feels healthier. "A lot of people think they need to do two or three classes a day and not give themselves a break when our bodies are not meant for that," she says.
To call Silver-Fagan's newfound prioritization on rest "beneficial" would be an understatement, and speaking to her, it's certainly tempting to calibrate my own schedule to match hers. But to do so blindly would not only be unwise, but could also be, at worst, precarious. That's precisely the issue we're seeing on Instagram.
"It's very superficial, looking at pictures of people and looking at what they are on the outside and just drawing conclusions and making assumptions, just from the way they appear," says Moskovitz. "It's definitely dangerous."
During my own therapy, Scheer would often remind me that everyone's body is wired differently. Some of us break very quickly, and some of us, she says, hold up for years.
"It's really easy for people to fall into the trap of posting their workouts on Twitter and putting pictures of their Garmins on Instagram," says Scheer. "People see that and feed into it and develop this competitive nature where [instead] we should be exercising for ourselves and to be healthy and well-rounded."
But what happens when competition is the very backbone of class-based exercise, which already dominates the fitness landscape in major cities ranging from Los Angeles to Minneapolis? Take Flywheel, which offers riders the ability to put their "torque," or a measure of acceleration and power, on a leaderboard visible to the whole class.
Chinae Alexander, also known as @ChinaeAlexander, speaks to this. "I'm still not a huge class person. In the current environment, people really feel like they have to be paying X-number of dollars to get their six workouts in a week" she says. "I feel like there's so much pressure to live up to these sexy standards that have come about with wellness. It makes it really hard for people to do that long-term."
This can create a cyclical pattern that can be detrimental to your own progress. Scheer explains that a lot of people will "go really intensely for three weeks" before realizing it's just not sustainable and don't work out for another three weeks due to burn out.
Sustainability is a concern for Alexander, too, if only because she wants her followers to find a fitness routine that's reasonable for both their bodies. She notes that this latest iteration of the wellness trend creates "a lot of pressure and a lot of guilt and a lot of expectation," and that's something with which she's trying to help.
"There are too many things in life that we have to do," says Alexander. "You should enjoy what you're doing, whether it be running, walking, spinning or going to class — there should be some level of enjoyment out of it, even if it is just the satisfaction when you finish."
Loher reminds me that she's posting as an athlete, not as a fitness influencer, and that differentiation extends to aspects of her life that aren't traditionally shown on social media, including nutrition. Because she's working out anywhere from two to three hours a day, her body will burn "way more calories than the average human," even when she's resting. She's now eating a surplus of 3,000 calories a day, per a plan developed with her nutritionist.
But many followers aren't seeing the full picture, says Loher, and that's a serious concern for her and others in her position. "I experienced this when I was on Tumblr, as well, which is why I got off Tumblr," she says. "There are just so many young, impressionable females and males out there and it leads to eating disorders. It's so awful. Transparency for all influencers is very, very important."
For Hannah Bronfman, founder of HBFIT and a global ambassador for Adidas, this issue is personal. She tells me in a phone call that the reason she even began her "healthy journey" is because her grandmother passed away from anorexia when her body could no longer support her.
"For me, it was really important to live my happiest and healthiest version of myself. I see a lot of people on Instagram who are, for a lack of a better term, orthorexic, or workoutaholics, and they're trying to get in five classes a day," she says. "Being an extremist in any shape of this, and in any shape of anything in any industry, is dangerous."
Eating disorders have long been associated with athletics, regardless of level, especially in organized sports that emphasize appearance. In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes "reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia," according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Tack on the preexisting cultural emphasis on thinness, and the risks are amplified.
Nutrition is an important subject to broach. Loher lost her period while training for her first triathlon and has since conducted tests with her nutritionist to determine that a ketogenic diet — which is similar to other strict low-carb programs — works best to keep her healthy and safe. "I'm literally a well-oiled machine when I'm eating keto," she tells me.
It's not feasible for everyone to see a nutritionist, or a physical therapist, or a personal trainer. But with the concerns now growing with fitness Instagram, where does the responsibility fall?
When I bring this up with Bronfman, she notes that this wasn't Instagram's role in the beginning. "I was on this journey before Instagram came out, so when it did come out, I used it as a tool to showcase that journey," she says. "It was really interesting to me to see how much it picked up. When I was growing in the beginning I was like, 'Wow, people are really responding to this content!' And for me, it's not so hard to produce because it's just what I'm up to."
However, Alexander sees that the tides are changing; in her own growth, followers are hungry for more authentic content. "They really want it to be like real life again," she says. "People are looking for real interaction, real words, real photos. I can only hope that wellness does the same thing." She suggests that part of that onus falls on the athlete to share a bigger story about how they're living beyond the gym. "We don't share all of it," she says. "You can't just share the highlight reel."
And athletes, by and large, are aware of this. When Loher encountered an ankle injury this spring and was off cardio for two weeks, she discusses that it took her a while to make a mention of it on her Stories. "But I felt like it would irresponsible for me to be perpetuating something, this greater existence of people thinking like, 'Oh, she's still working out every day,'" she says.
Duhamel predicts that going forward, workout classes will put a heightened emphasis on individual needs, either out of care or — as clients demand more of it — necessity.
But if you want to see a change, it has to start with your own relationship with your body. Silver-Fagen surmises that everyone listens to what they see on Instagram, rather than listening to their body. "People ask me, 'Should I eat before I work out?' What I say is, 'Are you hungry?' We've forgotten to just be mindful," she says. "That's the key for everything."
Bronfman looks at it this way: "It's really important for people to remember that you look like you for a reason, and it's the best thing that you've got going for you."
Start there, and you can go anywhere. For me, that's across the finish line, injury-free.
Homepage photo: Geber86/Getty Images