An Open Plea to Fitness Influencers: Please Don’t Use Your Platform to Spread COVID-19 Misinformation

An Open Plea to Fitness Influencers: Please Don’t Use Your Platform to Spread COVID-19 Misinformation
Shauna Harrison Ph.D.

My fellow fitness instructors, trainers, coaches, and influencers:

I beg you, please, for the love of the people’s health, do not use your platform to spread misinformation about COVID-19. Really, please. As someone who spent eight years getting a master’s and a Ph.D. in public health (partially focused on health communication), some of the posts and comments I have seen floating around the ’gram from fitness or yoga accounts, quite frankly, terrify me—like that people are blowing the virus out of proportion, or that it’s not actually that big of a deal. All things that we’ve also heard from our current administration.

The spread of this misinformation matters because it misleads beliefs and behaviors. It is detrimental not only to your individual followers or clients, but also to the public as a whole. COVID-19 is real. This is a global pandemic. Every person who contracts COVID-19 has the capability to further spread the virus, thus prolonging its life. Public health communication researchers and practitioners work tirelessly to figure out how to best communicate the right information in the right way to the right people; spreading misinformation has the potential to undo all of that.

As leaders and role models in the fitness and movement space, I want us to do better. Your followers and clients look to you for fitness guidance, workouts, and expertise. They see you as a reliable source and are used to taking your advice on anything in the wellness space. They are primed to believe what you put out, especially if you self-identify or have otherwise been anointed as a “health expert.” You’ve heard it before: With great power comes great responsibility. We need to accept that responsibility and take it seriously.

I do understand that there is a plethora of COVID-19 information circulating, so much of it seemingly contradictory and thus potentially confusing and frustrating. The most well-meaning of us can easily fall into the trap of assuming something’s accuracy if we aren’t paying close attention. Add to that the fear for our own health or our careers and the grief for the lives we were living before March, along with the anger and anxiety about our reality today, and we are especially primed to react to COVID-19 news, especially involving headlines that are specifically crafted to activate negative emotions.

Reacting too quickly to COVID-19 news without first verifying it can lead to further disseminating misinformation, even unintentionally. In a social media sense, that translates to sending, sharing, reposting, or commenting something that spreads uninformed or ill-informed messaging. Doing so means you have now become a vector; you are now perpetuating the pandemic of misinformation and contributing to the pandemic of COVID-19.

I have spoken before about fitness professionals knowing our own lane and expertise when it comes to nutrition and, particularly, diet culture. Flippantly doling out nutrition advice to followers or even clients without a comprehensive understanding of how to interpret the full picture of biological, psychological, environmental, and cultural factors—as well as the data—for each individual is myopic and reckless at best and potentially detrimental at worst. We should heed nutrition professionals’ expertise instead of inappropriately claiming our own.

So too should we heed the expertise of epidemiologists, nurses, biostatisticians, virologists, infectious disease specialists, and the host of other public health practitioners and researchers when it comes to all things COVID-19. As fitness pros, unless you also have a degree in the above, this is not your lane. This is not to say you can’t promote handwashing, mask wearing, and other data-backed behaviors that reliable public health professionals and sources are encouraging. Rather, we have to allow the information they put out to guide us, not just follow what sounds in line with our beliefs or even fears. We have to respect science. Given that this is a novel virus, doctors and scientists are consistently conducting research to continue to refine what we understand about COVID-19. While imperfect at times, scientific studies and other research generally produce results and data via a rigorous and trustworthy process.

So, for the health of the people, we need to get a handle on the information we circulate on our handles and beyond.

Here’s what I would love for us all to keep top of mind:

  1. and it’s also still around. Since SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus and we’re still learning about it, information can become outdated rather quickly. Take the extra time to see if there is newer (and likely better) information available before you post or repost.

  2. This doesn’t mean you need to live in constant fear. This means you should listen to experts and take precautions to reduce your risk.

  3. Risk for severe illness increases with age and the presence of underlying health conditions. Rates of hospitalizations for Black, Alaska Native, and American Indian people have been shown to be roughly five times higher than they are for non-Hispanic white people. Hospitalization rates for Hispanic/Latinx people are more than four times higher than they are for non-Hispanic white people. Death rates are also significantly higher in Black and brown communities. We can’t ignore the devastating role systemic racism is playing in this pandemic.

  4. It is not true that it doesn’t affect children. It is not true that only the elderly die. Just because someone works out, eats in a certain way, and/or engages in health-protective behaviors, they are not immune. The fitness community is not exempt. Keep all populations in mind when you post.

  5. I know this is where you might get upset with me, and I’m okay with that for the sake of the public’s health. I get that we want to return to work; I know the virus has threatened our livelihoods since March. But the strict regulations on gyms and studios are not because public health bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) want you to fail. It’s because they want the public to stay safe. They are not tyrants trying to keep you away from your workout (I’ve actually read people saying that in many places). They are not trying to trick you.

Yes, we need to move our bodies. But doing so inside close quarters at a business-as-usual gym might not be the safest way to do that yet. The logistics of many gyms and studios—indoors, close quarters, heavy breathing, people spending an extended amount of time there—unfortunately can make them potentially risky places for transmission.

  1. protect other people Wear them when around people who don’t live with you or who aren’t in your bubble. That includes while training people. And while working out within proximity of others, especially indoors. (And yes, if you’re posting photos or videos of your workouts in any of these conditions, they need to include those masks—it’s important to send the right message.)

  2. Science has a process. Analyzing data has a process. Interpreting data has a process. Releasing information to the public has a process. People spend years in school learning how to do this, and their careers continually refining it. Even in a pandemic, when there is an urgency to obtain data in real time and experts need to adapt their processes, scientific organizations, journals, academic institutions, and the like have guidelines and practices to uphold scientific rigor and best address the needs of the public’s health. YouTube and Facebook do not. For this reason, science should inform what we repost or share. Do some research and look to credible sources—social media doesn’t have all the answers. Schools of public health like Johns Hopkins are packed with experts (yes, I am biased because I went there, but they have proven to be leaders in this pandemic). Resources like the World Health Organization are also generally reliable sources. Use your platform to highlight credible sources and accounts, and help give people places to find research-backed information.

  3. And while we’re at it, the whole QAnon thing—just don’t.

It’s not that I don’t want you to post anything. It’s that I want you to be aware, mindful, and informed with what you post.

I don’t want to understate this: If you have any doubt or question that what you’re promoting, reposting, retweeting, commenting, preaching, or in any way communicating is reliable information from reliable sources, I beg you, pretty please, just don’t. Take the time to do the extra research, to find the appropriate resources mentioned, to cross-reference. If you don’t have the time, then maybe you aren’t as committed to getting that message across as you thought. This is definitely a “be part of the solution, not part of the problem” scenario. Sharing is caring, but caring is sharing only that which is informed.