Social Media And The Shaping Of Positive (Gasp!) Health Messages

September 26, 2018

I noticed I’ve been getting served relentlessly with a few specific types of ads on my social feeds. Most of it comes from shoe brands, Nike to Frye to No Bull to Taft. I guess my feet have no excuse but to be stylishly covered. I also get a lot from Banana Republic and J. Crew, which is weird because I’ve never owned J. Crew anything in my life. But more and more, I’ve realized that an endless number of health clubs also have me squarely in their sights. “Cool,” I thought at first, “but, wow, are they trying to tell me something?”

After deciding not to take it personally, I started to pay attention to the messages these gyms – mostly boutiques around the Twin Cities – were conveying through paid social and their everyday content.

As a kid of the ’80s, I clearly remember the big fitness chains and the TV spots they aired. Their desperation to amass endless membership rolls drove them to hire big-name celebs. They focused on hourglass-shaped women in leotards and on-trend legwarmers. Men wore tiny (if any) shirts, and they were sweaty and chiseled. They represented the excesses and audacity of their decade. But I think it’s safe to say, in retrospect, they were harmful. They preyed on people’s insecurities and sold a mostly unattainable bill of goods.

For example:

Sex symbol Brooke Shields spent :30 convincing viewers that her pretty face and great body could be replicated by stretching, pushing and pulling at Holiday Spa Health Clubs.

Sheena Easton practically filmed a music video in this Chicago Health Club ad, playing up the “lover in her” while working her legs (in seriously high heels no less!).

And a glistening, midriff-exposed Cher absolutely crushed a tiny dumbbell while touting Jack LaLanne Gym memberships.

Fast-forward to today, a time in which health is viewed more through the lens of lifestyle choices that focus on the whole body (and mind!), boutiques in particular are using social platforms to connect to people – whether they’re clients or not – with messages that are wildly different. Gone are the headbands, the mesh workout attire and some of the blatantly sexist comments and images. In their place are messages of empowerment, balance and personal achievement.

Orange Theory Fitness (which feels like a really big boutique, IMO) markets itself by spotlighting and celebrating members’ individual accomplishments, which can range from losing weight to setting a personal best race time to simply feeling better. A novel concept indeed!

Our neighbors at Alchemy are rabidly focused on creating a health-centered community. They market themselves with yoga sessions at ballparks, runs across the city and previews of the next day’s classes on Instagram. They host breakfasts, they serve wine and beer (on occasion) and encourage members to “pursue your legend” — whatever that means to them — all year long.

Discover Strength positions its trainers as experts in research-based strength training to achieve true health, not just bulging biceps. It pairs members up with trainers for Body Comp Challenges (increasing lean muscle mass through training and recommended calorie intake), encourages periodic Bod Pod measurements to track progress and leverages Instagram to share science-based knowledge about the multitude of health benefits that come from resistance workouts. Of course, if you get the biceps out of the deal, too, all the better.

I suppose the proof that all of this is working is in the reduced fat, high-protein pudding. Orange Theory is on fire; its 1,000th location opened this summer. Alchemy just expanded into a second market (Denver), and Discover Strength recently opened a fourth location in the Twin Cities.

It goes without saying what a change for the better it’s all been. As a society, we still struggle with body image and overall health. But when the marketing messages coming out of large clubs and boutique gyms are overwhelmingly supportive and positive, I think it has the power to change our collective perspective when it comes to how we look, how we feel and ultimately, how we take care of ourselves.