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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Realities of the Fitness Industry: Ethical Dilemmas and their Impacts on Health

A woman in a gym setting sitting on a recumbent cycling fitness machine and another woman explaining how the machine monitor functions.

A woman in a gym setting sitting on a recumbent cycling fitness machine and another woman explaining how the machine monitor functions.

Joy Peters ’25

Photo source: Pixabay

Joy Peters is majoring in public health science with minors in anthropology, sociology, and sustainable food systems, and a 2023-24 health care ethics intern with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.


In a world where we are bombarded by fitness influencers flaunting perfectly sculpted bodies and wellness brands promising enticing benefits, it is easy to get swept up into the compelling nature of the modern fitness industry. This industry, however, is misguided by the prioritization of profit, glorification of false realities, and pervasiveness of misinformation, which all have repercussions on individual health and well-being. By critically evaluating the modern fitness industry, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that restrict people from truly optimizing their overall health and wellness.

Ethical Concerns Within the Fitness Industry

  • Commodification of fitness as a product

The fitness industry, including gyms, personal trainers, and fitness nutrition brands, is a $30 billion business operating within a commercialized market that prioritizes profit motives over health promotion. People buy into this industry in hopes of achieving a glorified ideal that is deeply ingrained into the culture. The emergence of boutique fitness studios are on the rise, and a ubiquitous characteristic among them is their whopping price tag. This industry is not only profiting off of these exercise classes, but also capitalizing on overexercising in order to accrue more revenue from fitness recovery businesses. 

Another money making ploy that suggests health can be purchased as a product is supplements. Supplements do not require FDA approval and lack conclusive research, yet these businesses are extremely profitable because marketers allure consumers by selling a vision. In fact, supplements can give consumers an illusionary sense of invulnerability, leading to an increase in poor health choices such as exercising less and eating less nutritious foods. Many people believe they are making an investment into their health which helps them justify the monetary toll, but the reality is health and wellness does not need to be expensive in order to be effective.

  • Misleading portrayal of fitness on social media

The pursuit of fitness, more often than not, is an imperfect and challenging journey that demands commitment. Media that reflects this reality exists, but is incredibly overwhelmed by images of perceived perfection. Social media bolsters the aesthetic of fitness (i.e. mirror selfies, matching workout sets, and expensive smoothies), but neglects to showcase the less than glamorous aspects of the fitness lifestyle. Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, states, “Much of what could be called ‘fitfluencer’ content is really just ‘thin-spiration’ in disguise.” While fitness-related content is generally meant to encourage others to be healthy, the lack of transparency behind what goes into the production of such content can be quite harmful. The perpetuation of unrealistic norms often leaves the average person feeling defeated when they inevitably are unable to replicate the picture perfect images that flood their social media platforms.

  • Impending threat of misinformation

The immense distribution of misinformation within the fitness industry is of the utmost concern. According to a recent study about fitness on social media, “two-thirds of the leading fitspiration accounts audited lacked credibility or contained potentially harmful or unhealthy content.” The issue is that there is no universal standard for training or certification within the fitness industry. Sure, credentialing programs exist, but they are not required in order to call oneself a fitness professional. This dilemma can be very difficult to navigate for the average fitness enthusiast who does not know how to distinguish reliable data from fitness hearsay. In another study, less than 20% of the fitness related influencers sampled reported having any credentials. With only a fraction of fitness creators possessing reliable qualifications, the risk of disseminating inaccurate or misguided health information is high. Furthermore, achieving success in the industry is often measured by gaining clout, amassing followers, and accruing wealth, thus fostering the proliferation of misinformation in order to achieve such standards.

Effects on Health

The fitness industry, in theory, is supposed to promote health and well being, however the ethical dilemmas explored above are not aiding in that mission. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than a quarter of U.S. adults meet the recommended guidelines for aerobic and muscle strengthening activity. The fitness industry is failing the majority of Americans in this sense. There needs to be a call to serve all people, especially those who are unable to buy into the expensive and luxurious market that has become the fitness industry. This gap in accessibility is leading to the fit becoming fitter, leaving the rest of Americans still struggling to meet the basic standards of health. 

This industry, perpetuated by social media, places an inordinate amount of value on physical appearance. It is often the desire to achieve an ideal image that drives fitness pursuits rather than the intention of improving health. Studies have found that thin-ideal internalization increases body dissatisfaction which in turn increases dieting and the risk of eating pathology

The fitness industry can make people feel like they need to look a certain way in order to truly be accepted into the community, which is counterproductive as the internalization of weight stigma is found to be associated with reduced physical activity. Also, when we look to the fitness industry for health advice and are largely confronted with opinion-based and inaccurate information by self-proclaimed professionals, the potential for physical harm is great. For example, “dry scooping” was a recent TikTok fitness trend that promised fast acting workout benefits, but in fact was quite dangerous as it could lead to respiratory and cardiovascular distress.    

Going Forward

The fitness industry needs to be refocused, placing health and wellbeing at the forefront. The current state of the industry genuinely poses a great public health concern. Individuals striving to enhance their lifestyles are falling victim to business traps, unrealistic expectations, and misguided information. In the pursuit of fitness, many are met with negative health consequences instead. Thus, the industry must pivot towards ethical practices prioritizing health equity, challenging harmful social norms, and advocating for the dissemination of evidence-based information. Change can be spearheaded by health care professionals, but ultimately needs to be reinforced by workers and consumers within the fitness space. We must cultivate a culture that prioritizes holistic health over superficial objectives, and amplify the voices championing the well-being of the individual above all else.

Apr 24, 2024

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