Should you follow fitness channels in YouTube?

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First, there were speciality health publications, then TV shows, and now, you simply go to YouTube, whether it’s to know how to drop 10 kg or the right way to do a bicep curl. Or should you?Ranveer Allahbadia is India’s No 1 English-speaking YouTuber in the fitness space, with 812,100+ subscribers. Right above him, if you’re looking at just numbers, is Rohit Khatri, with 1.3 million subscribers and below him is Jeet Selal Aesthetics with 708,000+. While Khatri is a hardcore gym body whose Hindi videos “make men out of boys,” Allahbadia caters to a metro-city audience with content that’s lifestyle-driven, though centred around health and fitness. Selal, who also delivers in Hindi, veers towards the more physical aspect of health, though he does have some lifestyle content.

An engineer-turned-YouTuber, “Mumbai-based Allahbadia is 24, does this full-time, employs 10 people with a few interns as well, and is committed to staying in the video-content-making business for the next 5-10 years. Unlike him though, Khatri, 21, from a humble ‘Jat background’, living in Narela (near Delhi),” keeps things very simple, shooting his videos in his room, with no fancy gadgetry or team.

He aims to use the channel to start his own gym branded with his name. What they both have in common is that they are authentic and that’s what people love about YouTube stars: they look the part, appear to practise what they preach, and promise to help you in your diet, weight-loss or muscle-building focus.

Behind the scenesIndia has over 200 YouTube channels that have hit the 1 million+ subscriber mark, out of which 145 did so in 2017. Of the 200, 80 are original content channels (unlike brand-led ones). As smartphones get less expensive, the number of digital natives will only grow, guaranteeing greater visibility. Plus, there’s the lure of superstar status. Allahbadia started his channel to push another business he had begun, and his investors had told him that either he or his partner had to become famous! Khatri realised he was a known name when, at a local dhaba, about 50 girls surrounded him and talked about his channel.

“There’s no official definition of a social-media influencer, or a magic number. We are seeing brands take a lot of interest in creators when they cross milestones like 100,000 subscribers or 1 million,” says Satya Raghavan, Head of Entertainment Content at YouTube. “The health and fitness space on the online platform has grown by triple-digit-percentage points over the last year and is a big focus for the company, because of its potential, especially in a nascent market like India.”

Revenue for content creators is generated from the ads that YouTube runs with videos. In fact, Khatri realised only once his first bank transfer of about ₹20,000 took place, that this was a possible career choice. Another source of revenue is branded content, which means that companies pay social-media influencers to recommend or speak about their products.

Most vloggers swear that product pushes are obvious to the watcher, as they use terms like “promoted by” or “partnering with”, but there aren’t any rules about paid content that either YouTube or the law enforces. “Vloggers may get paid anything from ₹50,000 upwards, depending on their own following, the brand they work with, and the duration of the video,” says Niranjana Kannan, a brand manager with Spinta Digital, based in Chennai. In fact, YouTube itself helps match companies with content creators. These associations may also lead to on-ground events and other off-line work. “We get a lot of offers, but we tend to be selective,” says Allahbadia, who says the product or service will have to be something he agrees with, along with it matching his commercials.

Finding its space

People come to YouTube when they are looking at beginning something — like a workout programme, a diet or yoga, says Kannan. This ties in with what channels have found too. Allahbadia says he has tried slightly more complex explanations and detailed videos, but the ones that make their mark are easy-do, informative and entertaining. People don’t want an information overload.

This is the challenge on YouTube: while people like the intuitive content and dejargonised information, they may not realise that these YouTubers are not professionals in the healthcare space. While Allahbadia says he has a 6-month certification course from a gym in Mumbai, Khatri is studying nutrition, after a B.Com degree.

Medical professionals, who spend years studying and honing the skill, are alarmed. “Most of what Beer Biceps speaks about is very general, and is like a lot of information floating around on the internet,” says Lovneet Batra, a sports nutritionist based in Delhi. “I understand the appeal, but a person has no business speaking about PCOS and other medical issues. There are certain things that Khatri says too, like not eating fat prior to a workout — these are dependent on the individual, so while they may have worked for him, it’s not science-backed, research-driven information they’re putting out,” says Batra.

 Then there’s the problem of information not being graded, so a beginner who has no knowledge of fitness or body awareness, may plunge into a workout that is too advanced. “Beginners may get the false impression that a body can be built in a fortnight or a month by watching some of these videos. However, the Beer Biceps workout schedule is good for the intermediate level, while Jeet Salel is okay for intermediate to advanced. The bottomline is that no matter what level you’re working out at, there’s no substitute for a certified personal trainer, who can guide you on form. Also, never ignore pain,” says Dr Raju Easwaran, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Shree Meenakshi Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Clinic, Delhi.

It worries Preeti Chima, a certified personal trainer in Gurugram, that Beer Biceps dissuades people from paying a specialist, but rather to educate themselves. “How will they do that if they don’t go to a professional?” she says.

The videos do inspire people to work out, eat healthy and lead active lives. But if you’re new to fitness, consult a doctor and a certified dietician before you begin.

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