The gym wale bhaiya with his useful tips on fitness and nutrition is now an influencer. He has evolved into a techno-handy, social media savvy fitness coach. Freed from the constraints of geography and physical proximity, business is growing.
It’s now a full-fledged industry on Instagram, with handles like “subtle.strength,” “ThePicky Eater,” “Penutphsique” drawing fitness enthusiasts in droves.
Sheena Roy swears by her online workout program 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 personally train clients. The husband-and-wife duo sold their successful fashion business in 2017 and committed to fitness as a lifestyle as well as a profession.
“Coaching clients online can sometimes be a challenge, but in the long run we find it much more convenient as clients can message us at any time. Even when we are not available to answer, immediately writing down questions or thoughts is very helpful in understanding the customer and their needs,” she says.
24-year-old Ekansh Taneja has a similar story. He first devoted 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 changing every five years,” says Ekansh, adding that a niche audience can help with short-term growth, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to enjoying what one is doing.
There is a growing demand for online health and fitness coaches from those who provide bespoke personalized videos, excel sheets, charts and also regular check-ins.
It’s fitness rebooted and repackaged in a post-pandemic India. If you can’t get to the gym, they’ll bring it to you through guided workouts over the phone. From pilates and yoga to high-intensity interval training and nutritional advice, digital fitness is more mainstream than ever.
It’s not like the online fitness world never existed before. The pandemic, with all its limitations, has seen trainers develop or have been shut out, but even though everything is ‘back to normal’, digital fitness is here to stay.
It also made it easier for many clients to take that first step in the comfort of their home, rather than being judged for “wrong form” or their lack of gym experience. It was easier to end that zoom call and use the chair to do Bulgarian splits, rather than walking or driving to a nearby gym.
And coaches use Instagram Reels to develop their brand.
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Breaking it down for beginners
Sheena has two accounts, her main Instagram account, Sheenafit, which she started when she took her first step away from her stressful, 24-hour lifestyle where takeout was 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 simple and made with available ingredients.
She holds regular Q&A sessions, answering even the most basic fitness or nutrition questions. She makes simple and accurate slides about low-calorie drinks or desserts, or gives recognizable examples of why people should invest in their health. She would also break down calories for every popular drink or food that people cut out of their diets 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, navigates the online and offline world with ease. He started 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, gymnastics, powerlifting, and bodyweight training.
“Evolving is key. I did a job after completing my engineering that I didn’t like. I started training people in my father’s gym and that made me happy,” he says. For him, his following is built from his first offline venture, word of mouth and his Nike partnership. Like that of India only male As a Nike coach, he created many of his popular workouts with an oft-neglected fitness equipment: the kettlebell. His clientele includes popular names from the entertainment industry such as actor-influencer Prajakta Koli and comedian Rohan Joshi.
Most Indians have yet to integrate fitness and nutrition into their daily lives. “It is usually aesthetics that people immediately go for. But as India is still in its infancy of making fitness a part of their lives, I’m not really worried about why as long as they start,” says Kunal.
Despite the fitness industry bursting at the seams with influencers, coaches, and gyms, most people don’t have access to the right fitness tools or ideas, often relying on second-hand dubious tips from unverified sources.
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One of the areas that all three influencers are actively targeting is fitness myths. From topical fat reduction to over-exercising and even alcohol and smoking, myths run rampant in the fitness and health industry.
So step one is to sift through often contradictory information. To eat or not to eat before a training session? Will bananas lead to weight gain or weight loss? Will the immune system collapse without acai berries?
What is useful is not only certification, but also the tactics used to create content. Ekansh uses short-acting roles to get his point across. It’s like mini-movies 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 roles, using a carousel post or uploading multiple photos/slides into one 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 one exercise per week, how to read nutrition labels on food. Her posts are especially helpful for those taking the first step towards fitness and balanced eating.
Kunal does it through both, question and answer sessions on stories and static posts and reels. When it comes to busting myths, the three share a similar no-nonsense attitude. There are no shortcuts in fitness.
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Makers and numbers game
Content creation can be a lucrative business, but there is always the danger of content stagnation or depletion. In addition, there is the constant pressure of the ‘numbers game’: the likes, comments, shares and views that are collected.
There is also the impression that a large number of followers and level of engagement means that the person posting the content is trustworthy or ‘authentic’. That makes the job more difficult, especially in the world of ‘lose belly fat in 10 days’ or ‘this diet will change your life’.
After all, sticking to the basics isn’t glamorous, even if it’s effective.
Sheena, who has always been transparent about taking breaks from social media for better mental well-being, practices it. She often takes mini breaks from posting or creating content.
“It’s a double-edged sword, if you rely on it to make you feel good. I use it as a reference so I can improve my macro trends,” says Ekansh. Analytics, he says, should be a point of reference rather than a benchmark. It can be helpful to gauge what is missing from someone’s content.
Kunal uses self-deprecation to point out that trends are a necessary evil if an ‘influencer’ wants more engagement. Kunal would participate in ongoing “challenges,” such as talking directly to his followers, but it requires multiple takes. His video is caption“How do you do that Influencerssss.”
He sometimes uses his cat Burpee as a tool to make its content funny, especially when answering questions about fitness myths like spot reduction.
More involvement often means more business. Kunal, on the other hand, sometimes turns the joke inward when he points out joining trends, because otherwise people don’t notice the content. On other days, the advice is pretty simple: keep going as you please.
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It’s all about upgrading
The common criticism often directed at fitness trainers is that most don’t even have the basic qualifications to be one.
“I enrolled myself in two certification programs as quickly as possible, and whatever I earned in the early stages of my fitness career, I invested 100% of it in my education,” says Ekansh.
Kunal is certified by Energy Ekktle Fitness Academy, while Sheena is certified in Exercise Nutrition by Precision Nutrition and a certified behavior change specialist by National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
While each of the three coaches has their own modus operandi, what connects them is a personal journey of realizing that fitness and fitness coaching is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. “After coaching over 5000 people, I feel like it made the connection. Many good coaches also fail because they (coaches) lack this basic ability to actually walk in their client’s shoes,” says Ekansh.
Online coaching may seem like a long-distance relationship involving texting, updating excel sheets and making endless videos to correct one’s form. It’s intimate, but requires you to show up.
(Edited by Prashant)