The gym wale bhaiya with his handy tips on fitness and diet is now an influencer. He has evolved into a techno-dextrous, social media savvy fitness coach. Freed from the limitations of geography and physical proximity, business is booming.
It’s a full-fledged industry now on Instagram, with handles like ‘subtle.strength’, ‘ThePicky Eater’, ‘Penutphsique’ drawing fitness enthusiasts in droves.
Sheena Roy swears by her online training programme that also has a DIY fatloss guide for those who cannot afford one-on-one coaching. Other than friends or family, she and her husband Alpha, also a fitness coach, do not train clients in person. The husband-wife duo sold their successful fashion venture in 2017 and committed to fitness as a lifestyle and also profession.
“Coaching clients online can be challenging at times, but we find it much more convenient in the long run because clients can message us any time they need. Even if we are not available to reply, that instant jotting down of questions or thoughts is very helpful in understanding the client and their needs,” she says.
Twenty-four-year-0ld Ekansh Taneja has a similar story. He first committed himself to his own fat loss journey and then moved to train others. As a creator, he is encouraged by the idea of having a business that grows on its own. “My niches keep on changing every five years,” says Ekansh, adding that a niche audience can help in short-term growth, but eventually, it all boils down to enjoying what one does.
There is a growing demand for online health and fitness coaches from those who provide tailor-made personalised videos, excel sheets, charts and do regular check-in as well.
It is fitness rebooted and repackaged in a post-pandemic India. If you can’t go to the gym, then they will bring it to you through guided workouts on the phone. From pilates and yoga to high intensity interval training and nutrition advice, digital fitness is more entrenched than ever.
It’s not like the online fitness world never existed before. The pandemic, with all its restrictions, provided the impetus-forcing trainers to either evolve or be left out, but even though everything is ‘back to normal’, digital fitness is here to stay.
For many customers, it also became easier to take that first step in the comfort of their homes, instead of being judged for ‘wrong form’ or their lack of experience in gym. It was easier to end that zoom call and use the chair to do Bulgarian splits, instead of walking or driving to a nearby gym.
And coaches are using Instagram Reels to develop their brand.
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Breaking it down for beginners
Sheena has two accounts, her main Instagram handle, Sheenafit, which she started when she took her first step away from her stress-filled, work round-the-clock lifestyle where takeouts were the norm. The account now has one lakh followers. Her second handle, Sheenafiteats, has low-fat recipes that she also recommends to her clients. Most of the recipes are fuss-free and made with available ingredients.
She holds regular Q&A sessions and answers even the most basic questions related to fitness or diet. She makes simple and precise slides about low calorie drinks or dessert options, or gives relatable examples about why one should invest in one’s health. She would also break down calories for any popular beverage or food item that people eliminate from their diet while trying to lose fat without understanding how fat loss actually works.
Kunal Rajput, a Nike coach with 11 years of experience in the fitness industry, straddles the online and offline world with ease. He started out training people in his father’s gym in Mumbai where he created the fitness movement, ‘Unlock’. In 2017 he developed ‘The Movement’, a six-day fitness regimen that combines workout routines like crossfit, callisthenics, powerlifting and bodyweight training.
“Evolving is the key. I did a job after completing my engineering that I did not enjoy. I moved to training people at my father’s gym and that made me happy,” he says. For him, his followers have been built up from his initial offline venture, word of mouth, and through his Nike partnership. As India’s only male Nike coach, he created a lot of his popular workouts with an often neglected gym equipment–the kettlebell. His clientele includes popular entertainment industry names like actor-influencer Prajakta Koli and comedian Rohan Joshi.
Most Indians are yet to adopt fitness and nutrition into their daily lives. “It is usually aesthetics that people immediately go for. But since India is still at the nascent stages of making fitness a part of their life, I am actually not concerned about the why as long as they do start,” says Kunal.
Despite the fitness industry bursting at the seams with influencers, coaches and gyms, most people do not have access to proper fitness tools or ideas, often relying on second-hand dubious tips by unverified sources.
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One of the areas that all three influencers actively focus on are fitness myths. From spot reduction of fat to over working out and even alcohol and smoking, myths run amok in the fitness and health industry.
So step one is sifting through often conflicting information. To eat or not to eat before a workout session? Will bananas cause weight gain or weight loss? Will the immune system collapse without acai berries?
What comes handy is not just certification but also the tactics used to create content. Ekansh uses short acting reels to make his point. They are like mini films where he plays two characters, one supporting the myth, and the other dismantling it. Ekansh currently has 126,000 followers on Instagram.
Sheena prefers static posts over reels, using either a carousel post or uploading multiple photos/slides to a single post. She highlights popular topics such as: are low fat snacks really low fat, are nutrition labels always transparent, can drinking chai lead to weight gain, how much should someone train in a week, how to read nutrition labels on food. Her posts are especially helpful to those taking the first step towards fitness and balanced eating.
Kunal does it through both, Q&A sessions on stories and static posts and reels. When it comes to myth-busting, the three share a similar no-nonsense attitude. There are no shortcuts in fitness.
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Creators’ and numbers’ game
Creating content can be a lucrative business, but there’s always the danger of stagnation or content exhaustion. Plus, there is the constant pressure of the ‘numbers game’ — the likes, comments, shares and views racked up.
There is also the impression that a large number of followers and level of engagement means the person posting the content is dependable or ‘authentic’. That is what makes the job tougher, especially in the world of ‘lose belly fat in 10 days’, or ‘this diet will change your life’.
Sticking to basics is, after all, not glamorous, even if it is effective.
Sheena, who has always been transparent about taking breaks from social media for better mental wellness, practises it. She often takes mini breaks from posting or creating content.
“It’s a double-edged sword, if you depend on it to feel good. I use it for reference so that I can improve my macro trends,” says Ekansh. According to him, analytics should be a reference point rather than a benchmark. It can be helpful to gauge what’s lacking in one’s content.
Kunal uses self-deprecatory humour to point out that trends are a necessary evil if an ‘influencer’ wants more engagement. Kunal would take part in ongoing ‘challenges’ like talking directly to his followers, but it requires multiple takes. His video is captioned, “How do you do it Influencerssss.”
He also sometimes uses his cat Burpee as a prop to make his content funny, especially while answering queries related to fitness myths like spot reduction.
More engagement often means more business too. Kunal, on the other hand, sometimes turns the joke inwards when he points out about joining trends because otherwise people will not notice the content. On other days, the advice is pretty simple–keep moving on the way you like.
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It’s all about upgrade
The general criticism often directed towards fitness trainers is that most do not have even basic qualifications to be one.
“I enrolled myself into two certification programmes as soon as I could, and then whatever I earned in the initial phase of my fitness career, I invested 100% of it in my education,” says Ekansh.
Kunal is certified from Energy Ekktle Fitness Academy while Sheena is certified in Exercise Nutrition from Precision Nutrition as well as a certified Behaviour Change Specialist from National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
While each of the three coaches have their own modus operandi, what ties them together is a personal journey of realising that fitness and fitness coaching will need constant unlearning as much as learning. “After coaching 5000+ humans, I feel it’s the connection establishment. A lot of good coaches fail too because they (coaches) lack this basic skill of actually walking in their client’s shoes,” says Ekansh.
Online coaching might seem like a long distance relationship with texting, updating excel sheets and making endless videos to correct one’s form. It’s intimate, but requires you to turn up.
(Edited by Prashant)