Why Fitness Influencers Are Lying More Than Ever

Why Fitness Influencers Are Lying More Than Ever

A few weeks ago, comedians Tim Heidecker, Rajat Suresh and Jeremy Levick improvised a 12-hour parody of The Joe Rogan Experience. It’s preposterously accurate. Wearing a SpaceX cap and sitting in front of a giant Fuddruckers logo, Heidecker riffs on endless topics in the omniscient deadpan of the country’s top podcaster: fly fishing, atheism, the habits of successful people, psychedelics, The Rock’s presidential hopes, and, at one point, the new “crab salts” trend:

“Have you heard about these crab salts? Are you familiar with this? This fucking blows my mind. This is right up your alley. You guys will dig this. Crabs in the ocean, you know, whatever … different kinds of crab. Generally, crabs have something in their DNA, or cellular structure, that when they decompose and become part of the sea floor … they release crab salts. There’s a doctor … what’s his fucking name … he’s been crystallizing these, I guess. Synthesizing them. Not synthesizing. Extracting. These crab salts have an immunity-booster that’s completely game-changing. I think.”

There’s a running joke throughout the performance — which, officially, was a special live edition of Heidecker’s Office Hours podcast — where the comedians interrupt themselves to say, “Can we link to that for the listeners?” Anytime they make a claim that they can’t prove (followed by a half-baked attempt to invoke a medical professional or clinical research), they promise a link. It’s exactly how Rogan prefers to operate in today’s world of wellness: go seek more information if you like, listeners, though we know you probably won’t. Whatever you hear right here is all you’ll ever need.

Misinformation has ruled the sociopolitical roost for the last few years, but it took a year like 2021 for the trend to make a convincing leap into the realm of wellness, or what used to be known as health and fitness. Vaccines, obviously, were the straw the broke the camel’s back. Earlier this year, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) revealed that the proliferation of false statements made online about COVID-19 could be traced back to just 12 people: the “disinformation dozen.” That group includes politicians and religious leaders, but it also includes bodybuilders and chiropractors.

In the past, it felt easier to discount (or laugh off) the pontifications of these figureheads. So what if the man who’s promising you washboard abs is also into conspiracy theories? At least he doesn’t have access to the nuclear codes. But this year, countless influencers have mined the pandemic for content in a brazen attempt to augment their brands, prey on the insecurities of the masses and sell lots of useless shit that nobody needs.

You don’t have to listen to the dinosaurs in D.C., they say. Just smile and shake your head whenever someone talks about mask mandates or herd immunity. Embrace alternative medicine practices. Treat your body as an extension of the liberties promised in our country’s Constitution. COVID doesn’t concern you. Your body, your choice. Right? You can’t be killed. Inject whatever you like into your butt. Eat raw meat if you choose. You’ve been preparing for a total, Cormac McCarthy-an apocalypse for years, so why should you get worked up about a virus that’s no more dangerous than the flu?

They’re pitching you on your fully optimized self, in a package that’s way more off-book and compelling than whatever survivalist practices the rest of the lazy sheep are after. Some of this bogus advice is conventionally “masculine” (Rogan’s ivermectin injections), some of it is “feminine” (Gwyneth Paltrow’s kimchi cure for brain fog). Nearly all of it is nonsense. COVID conspiracies have become a currency, recruiting credulous investors who in turn spread the gospel of bad science, chiming in on anything else that’s eligible for re-litigation.

Supplements? Stretching? Sex? Have at it. If a global health crisis is up for debate, then everything else is. And when celebrities decide to get involved — not just performers, but doctors, CEOs and all-star athletes — the misinformation movement receives exponentially more eyes and ears. When it turns out that Aaron Rodgers believes the same thing that the trainer in your Instagram “Explore” feed has been proselytizing for months, Rodgers’s cultural cachet and credibility trickle down in kind.

This is scary shit. But it’s far from hopeless. After all, false-idol fitness influencers don’t link to their work. They mutter something about “doing their own research” then abruptly end the press conference. The only thing we can do is listen to our hard-working and exhausted medical professionals — the ones who wrote the research the Rogans of the world refuse to ever read — and call out the false statements when we see them.

This year, there were quite a few. Most involved COVID, but some didn’t. Below, we’ve compiled some of the most explosive. Revisit them, chew on them and don’t let the people who pedaled them continue to disseminate dangerous viewpoints without repudiation. Remember: crab salts may sound like an absolute game-changer, but that’s no reason to snort them up your nose.

Joe Rogan

Rogan likes to lead the league in humdingers, and this year was no different. On the COVID beat, he claimed that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are “really gene therapy.” The insinuation there is that the vaccine is designed edit or modify one’s DNA — pretty much the last thing people on the fence about vaccination want to hear. And a bit earlier in the year, he said the government is “monitoring SMS texts for dangerous misinformation about COVID vaccines,” which pushes the surveillance narrative, that vaccine compliance is being forced down the throats of Americans by an all-powerful deep state.

Rogan’s 2021 could be traced in vaccine discouragement. Spotify’s $100 million man made those comments in the summer, professed that “healthy” 21-year-olds didn’t need the vaccine back in the spring, and this fall, concluded that President Joe Biden’s live TV booster shot was a hoax. In past years, Rogan has chopped it up with guests on the magical properties of stem cell injections (which apparently cured his rotator cuff), the apparent uselessness of placebo in clinical trials (this is a bad take) and how a diet of salt and beef can cure arthritis (no). This year, recognizing the landscape — he’s nothing if not consistent — he went all in on COVID. The most concerning bit? The average age of his listenership is 24. A whopping 71% of that cohort is male. If you thought one Joe Rogan was a bummer, how about 10 million of them?

Kyrie Irving

Unlike most of the “influencers” on this list, Irving is paying a tangible price for his spread of misinformation. Thanks to his anti-vax stance, the seven-time NBA All-Star likely won’t play a game this year and stands to lose about $15 million. During a lengthy, erratic Instagram Live in early October, Irving explained that refusing to get vaccinated is his way of standing up for those throughout the country who “lost their jobs” over vaccine mandates. Why that niche category matters more to him than the hundreds of thousands of Americans who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19 is unclear.

Similarly unclear, up to this point, is whether Irving’s gripes with the vaccine are purely sociological, as opposed to scientific. But recent reports suggest the veteran point guard might be interested in a “plant-based” vaccine. Canadian drugmaker Medicago announced this month that its two-dose vaccine — which generates coronavirus-coating spike proteins from plants — is 71% effective. It seems highly unlikely that this was Irving’s issue all along (wouldn’t he have just said so?), but it could provide a convenient exit strategy from whatever his last few months have been … assuming he’d like to help Kevin Durant and James Harden bring a championship back to New York.

Gwyneth Paltrow

The sun never sets on Paltrow’s pseudoscience empire. Goop was valued at $250 million in early 2020, and since then the brand’s managed to broadcast two seasons of The Goop Lab on Netflix and dig in hard on all manner of immune-boosting super-powders for “staying sane” (!!!) during “such a crazy time.” It’s important to remember, though, that while Paltrow does spout nonsense from time to time — earlier this year, she suggested COVID could be treated with “intuitive fasting” and “infrared sauna” — the real issue here, similar to Rogan’s playbook, is the way in which she bullhorns fringe scientists to a larger audience than they deserve.

Her close confidant, Dr. Alejandro Junger, sells $500 detox diets predicated on a condition (“adrenal fatigue”) that isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis. Another one, Dr. Habib Sadeghi, claims bras with underwire cause cancer. (Don’t worry, he has products your wife can turn to instead.) Goop’s midwife-in-residence, Aviva Roman, sells adaptogen blends that pregnant women would apparently be at a loss without. And Dr. Steven Gundry, a Goop advisor, believes fruits are harmful to the body when they’re out of season. For these esteemed medical experts, “everything you know” is almost always “completely wrong.” That’s the messaging. So that must be why you don’t feel happy or healthy: you’ve been listening to the boring doctors! Paltrow’s Camelot offers an alternative way forward. Believe — and invest heavily — in a ton of craziness you’ve never heard before.

Aaron Rodgers

A treat for you: type the phrase “Throw Rogan” into Wikipedia, and you”ll wind up on Aaron Rodgers’s page. What a world we live in. Rodgers did indeed do his best Rogan impression this fall, and seemingly out of the blue. In retrospect, his under-the-breath “I’m immunized” response to whether he’d been vaccinated wasn’t all too convincing, but fans of the Green Bay Packers and the sport at large (Rodgers is the reigning MVP) just wanted the NFL back. We applauded when teams boasted of 100% vaccination rates, oblivious to the fact that unvaccinated players were procuring fake cards and partying with teammates throughout the year sans PPE.

Rodgers, of course, had received homeopathic treatment from his doctor. That’s a long-disputed, 200-year-old form of German medicine in which the body is supposed to heal itself — not a 2020-developed mRNA vaccine. After that, we had the “crosshairs of the woke mob” comment, and a somewhat dodgy apology: “Look, I shared an opinion that is polarizing, I get it, and I misled some people about my status, which I’ve taken full responsibility of, those comments. But in the end, I have to stay true to who I am and what I’m about, and I stand behind the things that I said.” The real crime against humanity here, though, is that we all now know what “COVID toe” is.

Jonathan Neman

In early September, the CEO of Sweetgreen, also known as the “salad millionaire” (as dubbed by The Atlantic) took to LinkedIn to chastise America. The gist? If the country weren’t so fat, maybe pandemics wouldn’t put so much strain on our healthcare system. He wrote: “Seventy-eight percent of hospitalizations due to Covid are obese and overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?” His thought experiment ignored the barriers to affordable healthcare in this country, food deserts as a structural status quo in low-income communities, and the fact that his own salads cost $14.

Unlike everyone else here, Neman has vowed to take time to think about the pain his initial post — which has since been deleted — caused. He wrote: ‘”My goal was to start a conversation around the systemic health care issues in the country. Words matter, and the words I chose were insensitive.” In a way, he wasn’t actually spreading disinformation; those stats, and the problem-solving intentions behind them, both ring true. But at a time of such hysteria, when low-income communities of color are disproportionately suffering at the hands of COVID, the nation probably doesn’t need a ponderous lecture from King Kale.

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield is a good follow. There’s no doubt about that. He’s fit as all hell and dedicated to increasing his life expectancy. There’s an interesting Medium post here about how he reversed his “biological age” by 17 years … in just three years. Lots of the lifehacks on his list can be found on the massive longevity guide we published earlier this year. That said, for every post of him dishing on how to attain max vascularity or shooting a bow and arrow in his backyard, the 40-year-old biohacker also likes to play with his food (his followers) and suggest daily practices or opinions that are simply beyond the pale.

In the past, Greenfield has endorsed the scientifically dubious practice of Earthing, hopped on the stem cell injection bandwagon and sold some sort of metal/electric “power bracelet” that detoxifies the body and brings it into balance. Normally, his wellness-obssessed corner of the internet is left picking through his many suggestions, sampling what works and what doesn’t (which is extremely dangerous), but this year, Greenfield decided to add his two cents to the vaccine debate. Nothing good: “I haven’t been vaccinated against COVID (yet) … I simply haven’t yet seen enough data the current vaccine options to be 100% comfortable with it.” Accompanying that message, he’s selling a T-shirt that reads “I GOT IT BECAUSE I WANTED TO. NOT BECAUSE YOU TOLD ME TO.” If anything encapsulates more perfectly the attitude of fitness influencers in 2021, I am yet to see it. Oh, and, for good measure: in 2019, Greenfield tweeted “Vaccines do indeed cause autism.” He included an article from Dr. Joseph Mercola, a member of the disinformation dozen.

Dr. Oz

It’s not any one thing he said this year, but rather, the countless things he’s about to say. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a onetime Oprah darling who won the aughts, has been on the downswing for ages. And now he’s running to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate … as a Republican. On the pandemic alone, Dr. Oz has peddled a laundry list of uncomfortable ideas, like: taking hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment and sending kids back to school early, because it would only “cost us 2% to 3% in terms of total mortality.” Spoken like a true man of the people.

What else? Dr. Oz has been known to suggest a number of “weight loss miracles,” including green coffee and garcinia cambogia (the latter of which is a “small, yellow pumpkin” fruit). Back in 2014, an independent study by the British Medical Journal found that half of the recommendations on his medical talk series, The Dr. Oz Show, were not rooted in medical evidence. He’s built a career on quackery (and he enables it, too — Christian Northrup, another one of the disinformation dozen, found a platform on his show this year), but then, maybe that makes him perfect for politics. This is the “Oh, shit” singularity we’re marching towards; a future where fitness influencers go from posting about silver bullet supplements to asking for your vote.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Image

Noah Syndergaard

The longtime New York Mets pitcher is a fan favorite thanks to his broad shoulders and golden locks (hence the nickname “Thor”) and also has a habit of posting himself reading interesting books in funny places, like the bullpen at Citi Field. It’s an endearing shtick. But he’s dipped his toes into both the anti-vaxxer and alternative medicine waters this year. For starters: in a since-deleted Instagram, Syndergaard posted a meme this year that compared the “get the shot, get a donut” marketing ploy to obedient dogs being fed treats.

His real passion, though, is consuming raw flesh. No, seriously. Syndergaard told GQ  earlier this year that people these days “are soft” and “shun red meat too much.” He also explained that he doesn’t do “like … normal, ‘healthy eating,’” specifically turning up his nose at Tom Brady’s infamous TB12 diet, which is specifically designed (however anecdotally/unscientifically, in its own right) to limit inflammation and preempt potential injury. Syndegaard posted an Instagram story earlier this year labelled “breakfast of striving champions,” which included raw bison liver, bone broth and raw milk. Is he really eating that meat without grilling it up? Can he possibly chug unpasteurized milk (which was banned 30 years ago) without coming into contact with Salmonella or E. coli? And why must he also believe that 5G and wifi interfere with “how mitochondria recover and react” in the body, which is another thing he decided to say this year? We don’t know. But we do know that Syndegaard did not pitch a single inning in 2021 as he recovered from injury. Stay tuned for next spring.