If you spend any time online, you’ve probably come across a fitness scam. It could be someone trying to sell you a supplement that helps you burn 30 pounds of fat in 2 weeks or a routine that can get you washboard abs in 7 days.
These unbelievable offers are everywhere and even though some are obviously frauds, others can be difficult to see through. I find them particularly annoying because they prey on people’s genuine eagerness to get healthy.
In the article, I’ll be defining what I believe qualifies as a fitness scam and how you can identify one. I’ll also talk about the most common – and annoying – scams just so you know what to look for.
Ready? Awesome. Let’s go!
What is a fitness scam?
According to dictionary.com, “a scam is a deceptive trick used to cheat someone out of something, especially money.”
So if you ask me, I’d say a fitness scam is a fitness product (supplement, machine) or service that promises you unrealistic or unachievable results.
My favorite example of a scam is the concept of slimming supplements. While some products have been shown to have mild fat-burning effects, most of them don’t work.
There are also less obvious schemes like “simple exercises” that can help you build muscle faster than anyone thought possible. With these, you’ll usually get some results. But it won’t be anything as advertised.
The claims are very ridiculous too, like the picture below.
Why are fitness scams so popular?
There’s an entire industry around fitness scams and figures by the Global Wellness Institute show that Americans spent $264.6 billion on fitness products and services in 2018. That’s more than any other country in the world, which is interesting because roughly 32% of the population was considered obese at that time.
Clearly, the products didn’t do jack.
There are many reasons why these ineffective products are so popular, but I believe it all comes down to ignorance and greed.
As someone who has a degree in physical therapy and has helped several people lose weight and gain muscle, I can tell you that physical fitness is very simple.
In fact, it is so simple that our minds can’t believe it. As humans, we tend to associate the most desirable goals with complexity.
And for the most part, it’s true. Becoming wealthy requires a lot of discipline and hard work. So does maintaining a healthy relationship or raising children.
Asa result, it may be difficult to believe that getting in shape could be as simple as eating right and exercising. But it is.
Organizations that promote these schemes know how we react to overly simple things, so they try to add some complexity to get our attention.
I don’t think some added complexity is harmful in itself. As a copywriter, I often use reframing and technical jargon to sell.
But when you combine this with greed, you start to get some nasty results.
I think it started when some marketers moved to the dark side and started promising unrealistic results. And because people expect – and have experienced – difficulty with achieving their health goals, they jump at these remarkable opportunities.
It’s just like with guru courses that promise to transform your business and make you a regular six-figure income. You just believe it because you wish it were true.
So as these “black hat” marketers start to make ridiculous sales (remember the annual $264.6 billion), honest vendors feel compelled to follow the same route to stay in business.
After all, what works and what sells aren’t necessarily the same thing, and every business owner wants to make money.
In the end, you have multiple miracle products promising you remarkable results that they can’t deliver.
Here’s how the human body works
Before we get into the most popular scams around, let’s talk a little about how the body works.
Understanding this makes it easier to see through the BS and tell the realistic products from snake oil.
How the body burns fat
To burn fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit – a state where you’re burning up more calories than you consume.
The average human burns about 1800 calories every day from regular activities. If you work at a desk all day, you may burn less. And if your job requires a ton of mobility, you’ll burn more.
So to lose weight, you need to eat roughly less than 1800 calories daily.
Goodto.com has a ton of information on calorie burning, including which activities burn the most calories, and how you can calculate your daily requirement. You can also check out calories.info for caloric information on common foods.
Genetics come into play here, and some sources like this piece by Insider have shown that some people will never be thin, regardless of what they eat.
However, it’s important to know that the difference isn’t as significant as you may first think. People aren’t generically destined to be obese; they’re just more likely to be bigger than others.
Building muscle requires a combination of a high-protein diet and progressive overload. Muscles are made of protein, and the more protein you eat, the more building blocks you’re providing for your body.
Protein also helps your muscles recover faster, and can even help with muscle soreness.
Progressive overload is just as the name sounds – you’re giving your muscles more and more to do. When trying to build muscle, this means you’re lifting progressively heavier weights in your exercises. Depending on your goals, you could also be increasing the number of reps you do.
Healthline has a ton more information about progressive overload.
What about six-pack abs?
If a six-pack is the reason you’ve recently started going to the gym, I have some good news for you: everyone already has a six-pack.
The ‘six-pack’ muscle definition is formed by the rectus abdominal muscles – something that all humans have. Many people just can’t see their six-packs because it’s buried under abdominal fat.
That’s why the most effective way to get a six-pack is to get into a caloric deficit and burn fat. Sit-ups and crunches can make the muscles more defined, but you won’t see it without losing some belly fat.
Other health/fitness goals
Losing fat and gaining muscle are obviously very broad strokes, and they may not apply to you. For example, you may be more interested in improving your mobility, strengthening your core muscles, or improving your posture.
However, I covered these broad categories because they are the crux of most fitness scams. Plus, once you understand how to achieve these goals, you’re more equipped to sniff out bogus claims.
4 of the most popular fitness scams on the internet
Now that we’re past that, let’s jump into some of the most popular fitness cams. You might have even found an ad for one or two of these online.
Miracle products and machines
Miracle products include things like fat-burning pressing irons or a full body massager that helps you passively burn fat.
Since we’ve discussed how fat burning works, you already understand why products like these are a scam. They don’t put you in any caloric deficit. About the only benefit you get is the tactile stimulation on your skin, and maybe a placebo effect.
And because some of these products don’t cause harm, they get FDA approval quite easily.
There are some products in this category that are partially effective. An example is a core blaster machine that focuses on your abs and is supposed to give you a six-pack in no time.
While the machine helps you work your abs, they don’t tell you about the relationship between belly fat and a six-pack. That’s what makes it scammy, or at least dishonest.
Rapid transformation supplements
I find these most annoying because of the dishonest marketing strategies. They manufacture social proof from thin air and use photoshopped before/after pictures to sucker people.
Basically, any supplement, tea, powder, or oil that promises to help you burn fat passively falls in this category.
Some slimming teas are even toxic to your health, as reported in Medical News Today. They contain laxatives, diuretics, and other compounds in excess amounts. Some side effects will include muscle cramps, cardiac arrhythmias, and reduced levels of potassium.
Wait strainers are a category of products that look like they work, and that’s why they sell so well!
When you strap on a waist trainer your waist immediately shrinks, so, boom, instant results. But all that goes away once you take it off. Some vendors promise that the longer you keep it on, the more your tummy actually shrinks, which is just nonsense.
Some waist trainers also have a vibratory function and the claim is that the vibrations help you burn fat.
They do not.
Celeb diet/fitness plans
I’m a sucker for these myself because I want to know what kinds of workout celebrities are doing. I’d like to work out like a rock for a month just to see how wrecked I feel. And I imagine it’s the same for many people.
The problem comes when these workouts are branded as the ultimate. You see headlines like “do Chris Hemsworth’s workout to get arms like Thor” or follow Emily Blunt’s 30-day diet to achieve her physique.”
Diet and exercise works but the results aren’t instant. The body needs time to respond and present the gains you’re looking for. But you won’t get Thor-arms with a 6-week workout.
Another thing they don’t tell you is that the results are a combination of many things – diet and workout are just one of them. There’s also sleep, supplements, and the fact that celebrities can hire qualified people to personalize everything.
You can’t get the same results if you don’t have the same resources.
So what works?
I’m sorry if I’ve burst your bubble just a little. But at least you know what actually works, and can invest your time and money wisely.
One reason people fall into these schemes, which I didn’t quite mention earlier, is the associated difficulty. I know firsthand how hard it is to start and maintain a diet or exercise routine.
If you’re having trouble with consistency, here are 3 tips that may help.
Hire a personal trainer
You can hire a personal trainer to keep you accountable. She can guide you through the process, offer moral support, and even give you tailored advice.
Be sure to read this before you hire a personal trainer.
Get a workout buddy
A gym/workout buddy system is another great way to maintain consistency. Having another person walk the path helps you stay motivated and work harder. A buddy also encourages you to be more adventurous because you have a trusty spotter all the time.
Join an online forum
If these two options aren’t cutting it, try joining an online forum. They are particularly useful for support. Many forums allow you to share progress pics, diet and workout plans and even offer free advice.
Here are some great fitness forums you should consider: