Pilates, chlorophyll water, ‘nature’s cereal’ made from strawberries and ice… these are just some of the health and fitness trends that have gone viral on TikTok. It’s a minefield of health and fitness advice, but how do you know what to believe? We ask some qualified experts.
Let’s start by covering the basics. TikTok is a video-sharing app that has been the most downloaded app every single year since 2019. You might remember it for the dance routines of lockdown, but nowadays you’ll find videos spanning all areas of life from reading (‘BookTok’ is held responsible for turning unheard-of novels into best sellers) to ‘StockTok’ for finance fanatics. Then, of course, there’s FitTok.
Click the hashtag #FitTok – which has been viewed 45.5 billion times – and you’ll be greeted by short videos of people sharing funny gym ‘fails’ or a breakdown of their leg day. There are also people offering nutrition advice and wider wellness tips, like the meals they ate during their ‘cut’, working out as a "shy girl", or how to support hormone health while you exercise.
On the surface, this sounds great, right? It’s giving free, easy-to-access information to help you get fitter and stronger. But when 44% of Gen Z consult TikTok before their doctor when hunting for health advice, according to a report in Forbes, we need to turn a critical eye to what we see on the app.
“There are some genuinely good, very knowledgeable, fitness experts on TikTok,” says Aroosha Nekonam, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance. “The platform is a great way to engage with young people about the importance of health and fitness and, if used effectively, we should embrace it.”
Eli Brecher, a Harley Street Nutritionist, agrees. “It’s wonderful to see more people than ever before taking a real interest in their health and being able to access fast and free nutrition advice online,” she says.
When Dr Andrey Zheluk, a lecturer in health services management from Charles Sturt University, analysed 200 of the most popular TikTok videos under the hashtag #backpain, he found that 46% were created by chiropractors, 22% by fitness professionals, 3% by physicians and 3% by physiotherapists, meaning the majority of videos were by professional experts. Unlike in times past, when health and nutrition education would require a pre-existing interest or concern about the subject, TikTok is there ready to serve up important, expert-backed health messaging to everyone.
However, Dr Zheluk’s study also found one of the biggest downsides of the apps: despite being made by experts, a lot of the content didn’t reflect mainstream medical advice. “Primarily, alternative health providers, such as US-based chiropractors, use TikTok for non-scientific marketing messages,” writes Dr Zheluk.
A similar study by PlushCare analysed 500 TikTok videos with the hashtags #mentalhealthtips and #mentalhealthadvice to find that nearly 84% of mental health advice on TikTok is misleading, while 14% of videos include content that could be damaging.
“There is a huge amount of dangerous and false health advice circulating on the platform,” says Brecher. That might be intentional, with people purposely inflating aesthetic or medical changes in order to get views. But, most likely, it could come down to the fact that health advice needs to be personal, and TikTok, an app designed to share content with the masses, can’t offer that.
For instance, Brecher says popular ‘what I eat in a day’ posts seem harmless but the lack of context to the information is harmful. “The audience, which is often impressionable young girls, see an extremely thin or muscular content creator sharing what they eat, and assume that if they follow this exact diet plan they will end up with the same figure,” she says.
“However, everyone’s body is completely individual, our metabolisms work differently and we all have tendencies to store fat in different places. What works for one person may not work for another – and what they are promoting may be overly restrictive and far from a healthy balanced diet.”
Nekonam agrees that “a lot of the content on TikTok is too out of context to be useful.” She says: “Everyone has different starting points, medical conditions, intolerances, stressors and time constraints. Blindly following the life of a TikTok influencer can be dangerous – you’re likely not going to be working out or eating in a way that’s right for you and you will likely end up injuring yourself or doing more harm than good.”
So how do you know who to trust and what to avoid? It’s complicated, but there are some basic rules you can follow to get the most out of FitTok.
Unfortunately, health and fitness require a lifelong approach which is why anything promising one-week results or instant effects should be ruled out from the start.
“There are no quick fixes. Building muscle, losing fat or improving your health takes consistency, patience, determination and dedication. The slow and steady approach has worked time after time for decades, long before social media was invented and long before influencers were being paid to promote fitness gimmicks,” says Nekonam.
You can be pretty confident that any PT on the gym floor or dietitian in clinic will be qualified – otherwise, they wouldn’t have been hired for the job. Online, it’s harder to be sure. Some terms, like ‘coach’ and ‘nutritionist’, aren’t legally protected, which means anyone can use them without qualifications.
To make sure your health expert is actually an expert, look for terms like RNutr (Registered Nutritionist) or ANutr (Registered Associate Nutritionist), both of which are accredited by the Association for Nutrition (AfN), the regulating body for nutritionists and nutrition scientists in the United Kingdom.
‘This means they will have a minimum of a three-year degree in nutrition, in addition to any further qualifications or courses,’ says Brecher. “Alternatively, you can look for the letters RD (Registered Dietitian), which will mean they are registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).”
People giving out fitness advice should have a minimum of a Level 2 Fitness Instructor qualification, but the more the better. And if they don’t display their qualifications on their profile, ask them. There’s no shame in a DM slide to check that their advice is legit.
As Dr Zheluk found, even qualified people can have differing opinions. That’s because health and fitness advice is subject to interpretation. So, if you see something on TikTok that looks great, take to the research yourself before swearing upon it.
You might find that a claim has recently been debunked by more robust research or only applies to men over 40 when you’re a woman in her 20s. If you’re not au fait with reading research, take the TikTok tip to a trusted expert like a personal trainer on the gym floor or a GP who will be able to approve it.
Even if something seems to tick all the boxes, you need to make sure it works for you. You don’t have to skip your beloved morning smoothie just because intermittent fasting is trending and you don’t have to start Pilates just because TikTok loves it.
Personalisation is the key to any good workout programme, says Nekonam. “Any decent PT worth their salt will carry out an extensive assessment of you – your existing fitness levels and abilities as well as your goals to create a bespoke, individualised workout regime that is right for you, and you alone. On the other hand, influencers don’t know you, don’t communicate directly with you and have no accountability nor liability if things go wrong,” she explains.
“A big social media following on TikTok simply means that someone is good at social media, not at health and fitness. Social media is about entertainment, first and foremost, not education,” adds Nekonam.
Words: Chloe Gray
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