TikTok may be the workout platform of choice for Gen Z but that doesn’t make it the safest.

By Julia Malacoff
Feb 17, 2021 @ 1:50 pm
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Credit: Adobe/InStyle

TikTok has everything you need to end up in a neverending clickhole of doom: weirdly-fascinating cleaning advice, beauty products you never knew you needed, and sometimes dubious but visually-entertaining viral recipes (hopefully Finland will recover from its alleged feta shortage soon).

Another area where TikTok excels: Fitness, nutrition, and wellness advice. The hashtag #fittok currently has 681.5 million views, and the social media giant has quickly become the workout platform of choice for Gen Z. It makes sense. The videos are quick, free, and fun to watch. 

"I love 'FitTok'," says Logan Brown, 22, a law student. "Since gyms have been shut down in my area, I'm always looking for opportunities to supplement my routine." TikTok's special sauce when it comes to fitness seems to be how short the videos are. "On Instagram, I never know how long the workout may be or the difficulty of the exercises," Brown explains. He cites a similar issue with YouTube workouts. 

Millennials like FitTok too. "Almost all the videos are 15 seconds or less, so it's much easier to pull them up on your phone and figure out a set of moves at the gym or at home," explains Rana Good, 36. As a busy entrepreneur (she founded Naïra NYC, an online magazine for women of color), Good likes the efficiency of the shorter TikTok videos vs. longer YouTube ones, for example. She also likes the fact that TikTok videos automatically play on a loop, so you can see an exercise or routine played over and over again without having to restart it. 

Fitness "challenges" also likely account for some of the popularity of fitness content on TikTok. "I tried the push-up and plank challenge after Carrie Underwood did it," Brown says. "It was quite difficult, but it did get me to exercise." These challenges often involve using the dueting feature, where users can place the video of themselves doing the challenge alongside the challenge creator's video.

There's just one problem...

A significant amount of fitness advice on TikTok is not so great. 

One informal study found that 1 in 4 workout posts included incorrect advice. Basically, they had an expert trainer watch hours of fitness TikTok videos and rate them for factual accuracy and workout form. Exercises that were most often shown incorrectly included kettlebell swings (80% of the time), deadlifts (57% of the time), and planks (37.5% of the time). 

Obviously, this isn't exactly a rigorous scientific study. It's based on one trainer's opinion. And yet, a personal trainer myself, I can tell you that this doesn't surprise me. For example, this popular video with more than 529K likes posted by a fitness enthusiast shows an exercise that claims to give you a flat tummy in 30 days. I can 100% guarantee that you won't get a flat tummy just from doing this exercise, no matter how many days you do it. But based on the comments, people are trying it. (For what it's worth, there are also some commenters saying the exact same thing I am.) 

The post doesn't appear to be selling a program or intending to cause harm in any way. But on a platform where anything catchy can so quickly go viral, this kind of fitness "advice" can get people's hopes up about what's possible for them with minimal effort required. Then, it can be frustrating and discouraging when users don't get the flat-tummy results they're expecting. They might even blame themselves for the lack of results, not the faulty information. And this is all without even touching the problematic perpetuation of the idea that having a "flat tummy" is better than having any other kind of tummy.

To be clear, this issue isn't exclusive to TikTok. Fitness misinformation and the promotion of unrealistic body standards happens both on and off many social media platforms. "I think overall the biggest pieces of misinformation I see revolve around 'quick fixes' to a variety of health and fitness goals people are trying to achieve," notes Luis Cervantes, a certified personal trainer and dance cardio instructor at STEEZY Studio. "The reality is, sustainable results come with time, changes, sacrifice, and a lot of hard work." 

It's an age-old issue in the fitness industry: What looks cool and exciting on video (or on the cover of a book, magazine, or workout guide) is generally not what will deliver the results most people are looking for. Demi Bagby is arguably the biggest fitness influencer on TikTok with 13.9 million followers, and most of her videos are just fun and possibly inspiring to watch, not stuff you'd really want to try at home. Unless you can do a backflip. If so, congrats.

But what makes this issue especially rampant on TikTok lies in how the app itself works. 

Blame it on the algorithm. 

It's no secret that TikTok's algorithm is behind its addictive nature. TikTok uses your behavior while in the app along with your location, device settings, and more to guess what type of content you'll be most interested in. If you're watching videos in your "For You" feed, it'll play them in an endless loop. All you have to do is swipe your finger up to see the next one. 

"We see a 'slot machine' effect with content on TikTok because it knows your interests so well," explains Lexi Coulter, a marketing instructor and founder of the wellness newsletter Wabi-Sabi Letter. "It's able to provide you relatable content, and it cycles through different types, so you're always looking for the next video that could hit another one of your interests." 

On one hand, you could argue this type of personalization increases the user experience, Coulter says. "But when apps use these design tricks to keep us engaged, sometimes we end up spending way more time than we would if not for these psychology hacks." 

What's more, the algorithm can pick up on user habits and interests in a way that doesn't always necessarily benefit the individual. Coulter herself has received content on the app geared towards the pro-eating disorder community — tips and tricks for staying full, looking fit, and so on. "TikTok knows I have a complicated relationship with food based on my data — and that's where it gets scary," Coulter adds. 

It's easy to imagine how someone preoccupied with having a more socially-accepted body could be targeted with inaccurate and potentially harmful videos promising a flatter stomach or bigger booty, for example. 

This type of pro-eating disorder, pro-diet culture content, along with the fact that many of the workouts on TikTok are fun to look at but not exactly safe for beginners, is pretty much why Nikki Pebbles, a NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist and personal trainer who owns a virtual gym found herself on TikTok. "You'll see videos titled 'use this move to get taller' or 'try this circuit to help you lose belly fat,' and because people are so determined to succeed in their fitness journey, they will believe the influencer," Pebbles explains. "They push supplements, shakes, exercise plans, and detoxes as a way to 'help' people when in reality, those things are potentially harmful and have zero evidence behind them." 

Once Pebbles started sharing more realistic workouts and myth-busting advice, she saw her following skyrocket. "The dueting option allows me to quickly inform my followers on what they should be doing or what advice is totally false."  

But FitTok isn't all bad. 

"I have seen a lot of fitness professionals use their platform to help debunk myths, which I admire greatly and love to see," Cervantes points out. "It's extremely important to be honest with our audiences, let them know that results won't happen overnight, and remind them that persistence will get you where you want to be." 

While Brown says he has definitely seen some eyebrow-raising content ever since he began exploring FitTok — like super difficult workout videos that seem like a recipe for injury, or influencers promising incredible results from just a small amount of exercise — at the same time, there are many TikTok influencers working to combat unrealistic body standards, he says. Plus, the community aspect of the app allows FitTok users the ability to discuss suspicious workout or wellness claims. "I think the comments section can be a great place to see the feedback from other users," Brown adds. 

TikTok has also created a platform for experienced trainers who haven't yet struck social media gold. "TikTok has changed my business as a trainer," Pebbles says. She chalks this up to TikTok's ability to create space for community. "I've met and connected with so many people and clients from all over the world through TikTok. The algorithm funnels content based upon what you want to see, so I'm able to create fitness content that is exactly what my followers are looking for." 

In less than a year, Pebbles went from 0 followers to 174K. "TiKTok has such a powerful education and learning aspect to it, which makes education about one's body and health more accessible to everyone on the platform."

How to avoid fitness misinformation on TikTok

So, TikTok can be an amazing tool for finding workouts and fitness information. But how do you avoid sketchy advice? 

Double-check your sources. "Ask yourself: Is this person actually licensed and/or certified in what they're talking about?" Pebbles advises. Check out their profile or website to see if they are. Also, pay attention to whether they're citing evidence on what they're sharing, like research articles. 

Don't let TikTok be your only source of fitness information. "At the end of the day, I believe it's important to do your own research outside of what you see on any social media platform," Cervantes says. "While it's a great way to have access to such information, I recommend digging into what you see so that you can also make your own judgement call before diving into any health or wellness fads or crazes.

Watch out for quick fixes. "If someone is pushing something that claims it can melt fat, target fat, help you in less than 30 days, or restrict a massive amount of calories, keep scrolling," Pebbles says. "Changing habits or entering into a new fitness journey takes time, it is not an overnight fix that can be solved by a detox or supplement." 

Trust your gut. This one is important, Pebbles emphasizes. "A majority of the time, if it sounds too good to be true... it most likely is."