Written by: Bochen Zhang
Social media has emerged as one of the most prominent, if the most prominent, forms of marketing and advertising today. Although nearly every conceivable product that is manufactured is also sold over social media, clearly some products have been more heavily promoted through this channel. In this way, thousands of exercise institutions such as gyms, yoga centers, or at-home fitness programs are in operation that have used social media to advertise the health benefits of their systems. However, because of conflicting opinions on exercise and the growth of a significant amount of questionable exercise practices, it is not easy to exactly determine just how truthful and ethical the issue of social media in this context of exercising is for improving health conditions. With such possible differences existing and unethical practices in social media marketing regarding the impact that exercise has on peoples’ health, this research will set out to evaluate some of these claims as a means of exploring the extent that they are accurate.
Claims of Improving Heart Conditions
An import claim that has frequently been made across social media in relation to exercise is the potential that it contributes to people experiencing less heart failure or conditions related to a person’s heart disease. Everyone from established non-profit organizations such as the Bermuda Heart Foundation, self-professed health experts such as Dr. Willie Ong, to established gyms such as Planet Fitness have all made similar claims. For instance, in February a Planet Fitness in Australia posted an article telling participants that working out should not only be about fitness, but should also be about improving their heath conditions (Planet Fitness Australia, 2016). When examining the literature on the topic, it is clear that many empirical studies support the benefits of exercise in similar ways to the claims made above. Maiorana et al. (2011) examined the impact of strength training and cardiovascular training in improving heart conditions through a randomized trial that included 36 patients with such conditions. This research found that in terms of the strength training, brachial artery thickness occurred in the group that was participating in strength training. However, people who only performed cardiovascular fitness did not experience any discernable difference in terms of the reduction of the brachial artery thickness. The wall:lumen ratio also consistently declined in the strength training group, while it remained the same in the group who performed only cardiovascular fitness. These empirical results subsequently show that exercise definitely had a positive impact on improving peoples’ heart conditions, but that the only exercise that did so was strength training. Still, although Maiorana et al. (2011) argued that cardiovascular fitness did not have a significant impact on improving heart conditions within that specific study, other studies measuring different heart condition elements have argued that cardiovascular exercise can definitely make a positive impact. Serrano‐Ostáriz et al. (2011) examined the impact that cardiovascular exercise had on enhancing the amount of cardiac biomarkers that a person produced. Serrano‐ Ostáriz et al. (2011) specifically examined the impact that intensity and duration of cardiovascular exercise had on producing cardiac biomarkers. They found that the duration that a person exercised was positively associated with producing these biomarkers; however, the intensity that a person exercised did not seem to have any discernable impact on person’s producing these cardiac biomarkers.
Exercise gyms and self-proclaimed health experts are far from alone in using social media to promote benefits of exercise on heart health. Very frequently such claims have been made across social media through yoga studios that advertise health benefits in this respect. For instance, a quick investigation of the some of latest social media posts shows Bikram Yoga studios claiming that participating in such exercise, “Increases circulation to the heart and lungs” and “Improves oxygen intake” (TrueBikramYoga, 2016). While the social media claims made about traditional exercise in regards to heart improvements were shown to be very strong, yoga’s claims do not seem to have seem levels of validity. Cramer et al. (2015) examined such a possible connection between practicing yoga and improving heart health through conducting a large-scale meta-analysis of studies that have examined this topic. This research in total include seven different studies and 624 patients. The research found that these studies have shown that there was no strong benefit that yoga provided for reducing mortalities that were caused by heart disease. There was also very little evidence that supported that yoga contributed strongly to a reduction in the amount of modifiable cardiac risk factors that patients had. Similarly, no studies provided any strong support that showed yoga had greatly contributed to reducing negative impacts that were associated with heart failure. However, it’s important to establish that the patients in this study were all recognized as having coronary heart disease, so yoga may still possibly help patients improving heart conditions in patients who do not have pre-existing conditions.
Claims of Improving Hypertension
The reduction of hypertension is another significant claim that has been made across social media, with claims that it can provide a substantial benefit to reducing these symptoms. Yoga studios and experts have perhaps been the most active in using this medium to promote benefits of yoga on hypertension. For instance, a search for “hypertension” and “yoga” revealed yoga studios in Dubai, a yoga guru named Acharya Pratishtha, and even a yoga studio marketing a class specifically to improve hypertension and diabetes (Yoga Studio, 2016). In many ways, the literature on this subject appears to support their claims. While both exercise and yoga have both been shown to improve hypertension, yoga has particularly exhibited strong benefits to improving such a condition. The Sengupta (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of studies that explored the health benefits of yoga. In this study, the researcher argued that one of the major health benefits of traditional yoga was that if people practiced it at least one hour a day, it could have a benefit for alleviating symptoms of hypertension because it would help lower blood pressure. Specifically, this finding was supported by a randomized controlled study (Sengupta, 2012).
Yoga marketers are not alone in using social media to advertise benefits of exercise on hypertension. A multitude of gyms throughout the globe were found to have posted articles or posts that advertised the benefits of exercise on hypertension (Olympus Gym, 2016). In some ways, these claims are supported by the existing literature. Ciolac (2012) indicated that cardiovascular exercise is one of the types of exercise that have most prominently been recommended for people who have been experiencing symptoms of hypertension. In order to study whether or not such a thing was a true occurrence, this research conducted a meta-analysis on patients that have hypertension. This research found that a substantial amount of studies have supported the finding that high-intensity cardiovascular training had the greatest benefit on improving symptoms for people with this hypertension disorder. One can consider that as yoga is often an exercise that requires high-intensity cardiovascular experiences, it is not difficult to see how this exercise, more so than other traditional forms of cardiovascular exercise, has positively contributed to hypertension so consistently.
While yoga and traditional forms of cardiovascular fitness have clearly proved to be effective in providing solutions to hypertension, one considers the extent that strength training is an effective solution to such a health condition. Cornelissen, Fagard, Coeckelberghs, and Vanhees (2011) conducted a study that explored a substantial amount of different studies regarding the insights they provided regarding the impact of strength training on such elements. This research explored randomized control trials that were conducted on patients since 2010. In total the research included analysis of over 33 different studies and included over 1,012 patients. Within these research findings, the main study found that these researches have shown that while strength training was effective in reducing blood pressure for patients that did not have hypertension already, for the patients that participated in strength training who did have hypertension, there was not a significant amount of change in blood pressure or other symptoms that would reduce hypertension with the patient population that engaged in strength training.
Claims of Improving Mental Health
Even more so than the above mentioned health benefits, social media marketers have made claims that exercise is something that can greatly improve a person’s mental health conditions. For instance, one yoga studio made the claim that yoga, “Strengthens concentration and mental determination” and “Develops internal balance and harmony” (Yoga Studio, 2016). This studio was far from alone, as a general search of yoga studios Facebook pages shows that the vast majority have at least one post claiming that practicing yoga will improve mental health benefits. Even though empirically testing extent that such claims are accurate is difficult, many studies have been conducted that examine connection between yoga and mental health. Sengupta (2012) have analyzed this possibility through the meta-analysis and recognized and argued that it has resulted through strong empirical tests to have shown to have positive impact on mental health conditions. Specifically, this research considered that yoga has been shown to have a positive impact on depression anxiety symptoms. Sengupta (2012) argued that this positive impact occurs because, “it mainly acts via down-regulating the HPA axis that triggers as a response to a physical or physiological demand” and that the psychological benefits occur because “of the release of cortisol and catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine)” (Sengupta, 2012, p. 453). Such scientific evidence would seem to point towards the confirmation that yoga definitely will help contribute to a person improving their mental health.
Of course, yoga studios are not the only ones to use social media to make claim that exercise benefits mental health. A substantial amount of psychology gurus as well as gyms and exercise products have also used this channel to make these claims. For instance, recently the non-profit organization the Black Dog Institute posted a video by Dr. Sam Harvey supporting benefits of exercise on mental health (Black Dog Institute, 2016). These claims are not limited to fringe organizations, but also have been made by mainstream sites such as Gold’s Gym, which recently posted testimonials from members claiming working out improved their confidence and even wisdom (Gold's Gym, 2016). When one considers the literature on the subject, it shows that such claims have some degree of truth. One such study examined a substantial amount of existing research on the impacts that traditional forms of exercise had on reducing depression symptoms in patients (Rethorst, Wipfli, and Landers, 2009). Rethorst, Wipfli, and Landers (2009) examined 58 randomized trials that considered the impacts the exercise had on depressive symptoms. This research broke the populations that were examined in these studies into different categories based on their demographic characteristics. This research revealed that out of the 16 categories of people that this study broke down, 9 of these categories were shown to have significant improvement in terms of the patients and depression symptoms.
In examining the claims made by social media marketers throughout the globe, one recognizes that exercise is something that has with great frequently been claimed to have a substantial amount of health benefits. Because of the ease with which such claims can be made, investigating them was undoubtedly important for consumers interested in these products. However, the vast majority of instances have shown that such claims are at least partially rooted in a level of truth. The greatest discrepancies seem to emerge from gyms making blanket claims that exercise can improve health conditions when in actuality only certain forms of exercise improve these conditions, or from extreme outlier organizations with small followings. Subsequently, gyms advertising the benefits of exercise on improving hypertension and heart disease should be more specific in terms of the types of exercise that benefits from this by more accurately specifying different benefits of cardiovascular and strength training. Ultimately, however, studies support the vast majority of claims on social medias about exercise and its health benefits.
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