What do Gen Z really make of sports and nutrition?
In a recent insight study, we asked three student journalists to distil their thoughts on social media and exercise, performance enhancing supplements and endorphins to answer the question: what do students make of sports and nutrition?
Read on to discover what Gen Z really think of Fit-Tok, gym culture and nutrition in 2022.
Dishonesty on social media in the fitness industry: are young people paying the price?
The explosion of TikTok during the pandemic has provided a platform for anyone to post easily digestible videos, no doubt changing how content within the fitness industry will be consumed forever. But this side of TikTok, known as ‘FitTok’, also raises many concerns. Social media influencers and the companies who utilise these platforms are widely criticised for the perpetuation of unrealistic body standards. Demographics such as Gen Z will no doubt experience this the most, with a large proportion using social media in some form or another.
As someone who only really started getting into the gym during the non-lockdown COVID era, I found TikTok to be a very useful way to quickly consume science-backed information on optimal workout splits and nutrition. However, there is a vast amount of misinformation available on FitTok. For many beginners it is hard to look past the 100k+ influencer with a six-pack telling you that just 5 minutes of cardio a day will give you abs in no time.
"For many beginners it is hard to look past the 100k+ influencer with a six-pack telling you that just 5 minutes of
cardio a day will give you abs in no time."
These ‘quick fix’ workouts lack reinforcement with scientific evidence and many of these creators use these videos to sell their supplements or just to gain lots of views. This then has the potential to escalate into a vicious cycle where people are trying these workouts with a lack of information available to them and are not seeing these sudden results. This leads to Gen Z viewers becoming demoralised, and in turn creates a detrimental effect on the fitness industry, rather than the positive image that brands wish, or should wish, to portray.
Personally, I believe this is a negative symptom of the ‘FitTok’ phenomena, in my experience I’ve found the benefits of exercise have led to benefits in wider areas of my life. From better sleep, to a general better mood, fitness has provided a great outlet to relieve stress when University study or exams are becoming too much.
Along with the videos promising fast results, there are also videos where unqualified influencers post videos advising on the ‘proper form’ for weightlifting. In a collaboration between a qualified personal trainer and Money.co.uk, it was found that about 1 in 4 of the studied videos were delivering poor fitness tips. Kettle bell swings especially were not demonstrated well, with 80% of the sample videos giving incorrect form advice. This risks injuries to the audience acting on these videos and causing further setbacks and dislike of the gym.
There are also other issues outside of the workout videos that I feel are not spoken about nearly as much. One such example is influencers posting videos such as ‘what I eat in a day’ and displaying their calorie counts on screen. Whilst calorie counting certainly has its merits, being an important consideration when trying to lose or gain weight, it can act as a trigger for people who have a bad relationship with food or give people misconceptions about how sustainable it is for them. I see so many influencers with incredibly low body fat percentages eating a tiny number of calories in a day. This sets a dangerous precedent, with viewers thinking that just by copying their food intake they will look like the influencers. Of course, this just isn’t true and can result in various nutrition deficiencies, reduced energy and potentially dysmorphia related issues.
But don’t get me wrong, not everything about FitTok is bad. Many influencers have built large fanbases by combating misinformation within the industry, be it qualified PTs or medical professionals. Content creation has greatly aided the de-stigmatisation of gyms and given many people the confidence to visit when they otherwise wouldn’t have. Many TikTokers, such as Noel Deyzel, who has 5.7 million followers, are open with their large audiences about their steroid use and inform them about the side effects. With these videos being hard to regulate on the TikTok, the onus is on creators to shift to a more open and honest format, aiming to encourage people to take up fitness related activities without creating unrealistic expectations.
Students’ perception of sports (sports brands, fitness, nutrition).
Navigating both the academic and social demands of university can be difficult. And finding the balance can often leave fitness lower down the priority list. But there is no excuse: in an age where young adults are frequently surrounded and inspired by the hyper-productivity of fitness influencers across multiple platforms, the promotion of fitness and healthy lifestyle ensures exercise is never skipped. Good routine for young adults has also become highly fashionable, swapping late nights for the gym or a team sports match instead, as fitness and healthy living take place at the forefront of weekly plans.
In fact, millennials and Gen Z are often referred to as ‘Generation Active’ by health and fitness experts. In a 2019 Les Mills Global Consumer Fitness Survey, Millennials and Gen Z were found to be the overwhelming majority in the fitness market, representing 80% of all gymgoers (LesMills). The research also found almost a quarter of regular exercisers participate in online or app workouts, with Generation Active making up 89% of this total audience. This is no doubt owed to the rise of social media, as with interactive, short, sharp and persuasive TikTok and Instagram Reels, you can now find ab blasts, chest pumps and squat sessions to follow; ensuring that workouts can be followed at the gym or done at home too.
"Millennials and Gen Z were found to be the overwhelming majority in the fitness market, representing 80% of all
But what do Generation Active like most? In the meteoric rise of boutique gyms, HIIT studios, CrossFit gyms and functional training, visits and memberships to such fitness clubs and classes has grown significantly, with Generation Active making up 81% of all fitness class participants. This also signals how young people place value on the social aspects of exercise. Take TRIB3 for example – a next level fitness studio that fuses HIIT workouts with an epic sensory experience – whose ethos is that they are “passionate about bringing people together to sweat together, achieve together, and have fun together” (TRIB3). With a ‘mixology bar’ rewarding you with a personalised shake at the end of each session, what’s not to like – “because sweating like a legend deserves an epic recovery” (TRIB3). These classes are however a small luxury, with sessions costing between £12-19. Memberships are another expense all together. Yet, considering you’re getting an excellent session led by top PTs, getting that endorphin rush, joining a fitness community and sweating out the day’s angsts in super savvy studios with all the latest tech; it’s a small price to pay!
As for sports brands, for the gals out there, it’s the likes of Lulu Lemon and Sweaty Betty (if you can afford it) to keep you motivated and invested in your fitness mission, whilst more affordable brands such as ABYL, Gymshark, and TALA keep your figure tightly sculpted. But which brands are ethically best? TALA is leading the pack when it comes to ethical sportswear. Creating on-trend, inclusive gym clothes that are 92% upcycled, delivered in recycled packaging, you’re supporting a great brand. Adidas’ long-term partnership with Parly also sees the brand making activewear from plastic that would have otherwise ended up in the oceans. Invest to protect!
In terms of healthy eating, there’s plenty out there to ensure excellent nutrition too. With the likes of foodie stars like Deliciously Ella, Feel Good Foodie, Live Green Healthy, there’s an abundance of direction on social media to provide healthy meal ideas. Mob Kitchen are also a student fan base, who produce content promoting recipes to create nutritious but affordable meals. There are also Instagrammable, aesthetic cookbooks like The Green Roasting Tin that provide you with one-dish makes and bakes, which ensure equal measures of protein, veg and carbs. Ensuring you’ve got the right energy and nutrients you need to have a good day is essential, so breakfast is a vital meal that lots of students tend to skip or get wrong. Prepping overnight oats with a handful of frozen berries therefore (not forgetting a scoop of vanilla protein) can be a nourishing and cheap method to keep you on track. As a student, where life is busy and plans happen unscheduled, leaving with or coming back to homemade tupperwares of goodness that you’ve pre-prepped are an absolute winner.
"There is nothing quite like the endorphin release you get from exercise and the benefits it has for both mind and soul."
Fitness, let’s not forget – in whatever form you chose it – an early morning spin class that your friends envy you for; a 5k jog to get rid of that hangover; a HIIT class to sweat away your troubles; or simply being part of a social sports club – are all ultimately such easy ways to help good mental health and maintain fitness. There is nothing quite like the endorphin release you get from exercise and the benefits it has for both mind and soul. Structure, featuring a healthy eating and a fitness regime, indefinitely promotes the self-regulation we all also subconsciously need. Fitness, then, combined with good nutrition, should therefore be a priority for all students. In a world that can be overwhelming and intense, exercise will improve self-esteem and without a doubt, always boost your mood.
The use of supplements to further enhance training: focusing on caffeine.
Supplements make up a large part of student gym culture, from protein shakes to help build muscle mass to pre workout to help performance.
With the busy lifestyles that students live, the need to train in unsociable hours is increasingly popular with gyms being full even at closing times. This requires a lot of energy which many young people depend on caffeine to access and I myself have used caffeine on occasions to enhance my own performance, largely because of its promise to immediately provide improvements. As caffeine also allegedly improves cognitive ability, it not only improves the physical aspect of a workout but the mentality and ability for mind-muscle activation. It is clear that caffeine is immediately attractive to many people for this reason. However, is this an effective way to train? Would a caffeine dependence force young individuals to rely more and more heavily on it to keep seeing improvement?
Supplements such as pre-workout have made the use of caffeine to train more accessible and normalised rather than drinking a traditional coffee before the gym, and social media is promoting its use. Gym influencers online often make videos depicting pre-workout giving them a massive high and making their workouts incredible without giving much information about the proper use of them. This includes the trend called ‘dry-scooping’ where someone takes a scoop of pre workout powder without mixing it. Dry scooping is a pretty dangerous thing to do, as it can cause choking on top of the intense amount of caffeine digested at one time. Caffeine may not have the same effect on everyone but it does have its risks. When using caffeine myself I end up being jittery, my hands end up being shaky and I end up feeling uncomfortable overall rather than hyped up. It can also cause insomnia. If consumed later in the day then the mind will still be too active to allow the user to sleep which disrupts good sleeping patterns. For someone who works a day job or goes into uni everyday this is not ideal, making them tired and fatigued and therefore turning to caffeine again to help. This creates a cycle which may be hard to get out of as they build a dependence. Another thing caffeine can do is cause stomach-ache and if you are in the library, a lecture, an office, or even in a field playing sport then needing to use the toilet often is by no means ideal. A lot of students looking for a quick fix for fatigue or a boost for their workout are drawn into caffeine for its benefits, but often aren’t aware enough about the drawbacks.
Caffeine is not the only form of pre workout, and for those who are sensitive to caffeine or want a more natural way to train better, there are still ways to improve performance. The simplest methods for doing so can be by consuming a carbohydrate rich snack or even just drinking fruit juice to provide the necessary energy. These are often seen by student gym goers as a chore compared to the quick and easy caffeine pre-workout, but in the long term our health would be way better off with these kinds of methods.
"When using caffeine myself I end up being jittery, my hands end up being shaky and I end up feeling uncomfortable overall rather than hyped up."
Nutrition for me has always been a large part of whether I am training effectively, as lack of good nutrition results in unproductive sessions. In my view, caffeine shouldn’t be my first port of call to deal with fatigue. Rather than this I try re-evaluating what I am consuming, looking at my three main meals and even just the volume of water I’m consuming. Multivitamins are also great to make sure I am getting everything my body needs to reduce the chance of fatigue. I find multivitamins to be much kinder to the body as I do not experience any side effects. I have used digestible tablets that are simply taken with breakfast in the morning which set you up for the day. More recently I have tried using dissolvable tablets that are simply added to water, the tablets simply dissolve and turn the water into a cordial like drink. Not only does this mean for easy intake of vitamins but promotes the user to drink more water at the same time which is a bonus.
Overall, caffeine can be a good supplement to be used for increased performance but only practical in restricted use and for those who do not experience its side effects. There is more information on caffeine and its uses out there, and students need to try and search for that information before listening to possibly incorrect advice from jacked-up influencers on Instagram. I understand the appeal of the pre-workout hype, but sometimes health should come before performance.