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Wellness Scams and How to Avoid Them

Wellness Scams and How to Avoid Them with Natalia Petrzela

Health, wellness, weight loss, and exercise are at the forefront of people’s minds in the new year. But just because someone looks good doesn’t mean that what they’re pitching will really work. They might end up being a wellness scam.


See Wellness Scams and How to Avoid Them with Natalia Petrzela for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Natalia Petrzela is a historian of modern American culture and politics, with a BA from Columbia and a Masters and Ph.D. from Stanford. She also has a fitness certification and has taught fitness for many years. Her most recent research subject is American fitness culture and how we became a country obsessed with working out and wellness, even though working out and wellness isn’t really accessible to a lot of Americans.

The history of exercise and wellness in America

As long as people have been alive, they’ve been interested in health and survival, but what “health” looks like has changed over the years. A hundred years ago, health and exercise were viewed as two completely different things and not linked at all.

Even as recently as the 1950s, people who worked out regularly were the anomaly and viewed with suspicion. People thought building big muscles would lead to your body being restricted by your own muscles. Using your brain was more important than exercising your body. Some exercises were even considered to be physically bad for you.

Back then, anybody who spent that much time working on their bodies was though to have something wrong with them.

Natalia Petrzela

During the jogging craze in the 1960s and ‘70s, doctors claimed that jogging was dangerous. It was overtaxing your heart and could lead to all kinds of heart issues or even heart attacks, and for women it would damage the uterus and result in infertility. Natalia finds it fascinating that jogging was viewed as dangerous to your health fifty years ago, but now “go exercise” is the first advice anyone gets when they say they want to be healthy.

Why exercise and health science keeps changing

Natalia remembers when the popular diet advice was to eat a fist-sized amount of protein every two hours. Now the trend is intermittent fasting – eating as much as you want in an eight-hour window and not eating anything the rest of the day. It’s hard to take any of the advice seriously when the pendulum keeps swinging so far in opposite directions.

Until the late 1960s, there wasn’t a very large body of research on what exercise actually does to a body. People were shooting from the hip, so to say. There’s a book called Jogging that was published in 1966 and kicked off the jogging craze in the US, but when you read it, there’s no data. It’s just stuff like, “This track team does this and it works for them, maybe you should do that too.”

The lack of scientific research around health and exercise makes it easy for wellness scams to develop.

A couple of years later, a military physician named Kenneth Cooper releases a book called Aerobics. It’s not Jane Fonda-style aerobics, it’s what we today would call cardio. He did trials on how it affects your body to run, bike, and swim, as opposed to lift weights or do calisthenics, which was the extent of exercise up to this point. This was paradigm-shifting as people realized that exercise wouldn’t hurt your heart, and in fact it was good for you. All of the sudden, exercise wasn’t just for muscle dudes on Muscle Beach, it was for everyone.

Natalia is optimistic enough to think that the science changes because people are genuinely trying to figure out what’s better for you. But there’s definitely a lot of BS science out there. There’s a lot of cherry-picking data, a lot of people offering advice even though their degrees are completely unrelated, and a lot of people paid by companies to make specific claims because the fitness world isn’t a very regulated space yet.

Appearance doesn’t necessarily correlate with health

A lot of people are giving health and fitness advice not because they’re an expert in that field or are doing a lot of scientific research on it, but because they have really great abs and a lot of followers on Instagram. We can’t think about health in America without thinking about how much we – often very wrongly – connect health to what we think health looks like. And then we give people the authority to give advice because we think they “look” healthy.

That doesn’t mean if someone has a perfect six-pack they’re not qualified to give fitness advice, but it does mean their six-pack shouldn’t be their only qualification.

Natalia Petrzela

We often correlate appearance with health, but they’re often not the same thing. You may see someone who would look way out of place on the cover of a fitness magazine, but they might actually be living a healthful life. A lot of performance-enhancing drugs are designed to give you the appearance of health, but people have died from them. The appearance of health that those drugs give is quite at odds with the actual health issues they can cause.

The desire to be healthy

Americans in particular tend to be focused on instant gratification. We want to have a healthy lifestyle, but we want it done in two minutes a day. Wellness advertising feeds into that, offering “the next great product” to help us fine-tune our health in just minutes. But sorting through all the conflicting products can become its own job. We live in a culture where it’s easy to get obsessed with everything health-related. It’s actually an affliction, called orthorexia, where you get obsessed with calibrating the perfect diet and exercise routine. It’s pathological, and it primes you to want to purchase the next wellness product that promises to help you meet your goal – whether it’s a legitimate product or a wellness scam.

As a woman, Natalia feels the baggage that women attach to diet and exercise – saying she’s “been bad” when she ate something “unhealthy” or feeling guilty for not exercising. She has found it incredibly liberating to reflect on the moral language around food and exercise. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I ate a bunch of chocolate cake and now I don’t look exactly the way I want to look. Now I have to make some changes. It doesn’t make me a failure or a bad person.

Natalia Petrzela

It took Natalia a while to accept that not performing perfect health didn’t make her a bad person – she just needed to move forward. She’s encouraged to see other people heading in the same direction. Intuitive eating is a framework that works for some people – no calorie counting, no recording food, just listening to your body and what it wants and eating accordingly. This approach works really well for some people, but not for everybody.

Even with body positive and accepting messages, there is no one answer. You have to figure out who you are and navigate the confusing health and fitness marketplace yourself. Everyone’s health situation is a bit different, so everyone has different needs and will come to different answers.

The "one miracle product is all you need" mentality leaves us primed to fall for wellness scams.

Look at sources and biases to avoid wellness scams

The first thing Natalia recommends being aware of is a tendency to connect appearance with health. Just because someone looks healthy doesn’t mean they are, and it doesn’t mean the thing they’re trying to sell you will give you the same results.

How much do you believe in what someone is saying or selling because they look the way you want to look or they look a way you think is healthy?

Natalia Petrzela

Another thing to consider when looking at health and fitness products is to ask yourself, who benefits? Consider what someone might have to gain from it or what the agenda might be. Often the agenda is something as simple as getting you to buy a product. They benefit from you purchasing, whether or not the product actually works.

Any product or program that tells you this is the only thing you need should be viewed with caution. Some gyms are devoted to a specific kind of exercise and only that kind. Moving every day is probably better than not moving every day, so if the only exercise you really love is spin class than absolutely do that, but Natalia thinks that for optimal health, you want to mix up what you’re doing.

So much of what’s problematic in American fitness culture is that all-or-nothing mentality … if you want to be hot, healthy, and live forever, you must do this thing and only this thing.

Natalia Petrzela

Be aware of the credentials of the person giving the advice. Natalia has a Ph.D. in history. She doesn’t have the time or the interest to go read the most recent peer-reviewed exercise physiology articles. Someone whose authority and credentials come from a reputable place will be keeping on top of the new research and are more likely to give you good advice backed by science.

Red flags and wellness scams to avoid

Be skeptical of individualistic inspiration. It’s great to think that all you need to do to get healthy is go outside for a run, but not everybody has the same access to that. Natalia herself lives in New York City, and running outside when it’s dark exposes her to risks a lot worse than missing a day of exercise. You don’t necessarily need a gym membership, but depending on your location and other factors, different people have different challenges in that regard.

Consider what’s sustainable in your life, what’s financially viable, and what you like to do. Sometimes you need to work and get uncomfortable to maintain your health. But if you hate the thing you’re doing, you just won’t do it. Natalia signed up for a dance class because she knew that unless it was a class she was really excited for, she wasn’t going to drag herself through the cold to an exercise class after work. Some gyms have discounts for classes at off times, but how sustainable is it for you to get up at 4:45AM for $10 off a yoga class? Even if this particular product, class, or method does happen to be the miracle source of health (and that’s a big “if”), if it’s not sustainable in your life, it will end up being a waste of money.

Be very careful with any sort of steroid or supplement, even ones you can get over-the-counter at places like GNC. They may give you short-term results, but they often have long-term consequences. Our bodies are the closest, most intimate parts of us, and yet Natalia is continually shocked by how much experimentation people do with random drugs they saw on the shelf or in an advertisement.

Finally, watch out for extreme promises. Anyone who is making absolute claims about weight loss or the unique power of one product to change your body or your health is probably full of it. We know exercise is good for you, but we know it doesn’t do much if it’s not combined with healthy eating and other lifestyle changes.

​Wellness scams promise extreme results

One of the biggest red flags is any product that promises extreme results. The most frequent example is weight loss. Advertisements will show people with incredible before-and-after photos of how they lost, 40, 60, or 100 pounds. But it’s not just about weight loss. People will talk about how a product changed their whole life – once they started this meal plan, they found a husband, got a new job, and completely transformed their life. You should doubt any transformation that extreme.

Be very skeptical about anyone who is selling you that kind of dramatic transformation, either of your body or your life.

Natalia Petrzela

Natalia also advises skepticism of any product selling weight loss. The whole weight loss industry is built on the fact that you may lose weight, but you’ll gain it back. Very, very few people are able to keep of large amounts of weight of sustained periods of time, and those that can usually do it with dramatic lifestyle modifications. It’s a lot harder than whatever they’re selling in an ad. Especially if the ad promises weight loss with no effort – something for nothing just doesn’t happen when it comes to your health.

​Consult experts and be smart to avoid wellness scams

It’s important to consult with an expert when it comes to complicated and in-depth topics like exercise and wellness. Talk to your doctor or physician and make sure what you’re doing is appropriate for you, your life circumstances, and your health. Just because a product or exercise worked for someone else doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Natalia is a big fan of listening to everything, evaluating where the information is coming from, and making your own choices. Doctors have a lot of specialized knowledge and expertise about human bodies, but they don’t necessarily have all the answers. Natalia isn’t qualified to read scientific papers and peer-reviewed studies, but she does know how to evaluate credentials and determine who is qualified to give good advice and who isn’t.

It’s great that so many people want to be healthy, but Natalia thinks it’s challenging to do. If you feel like you’re failing, know that it’s probably not your fault. Our healthcare system and the wellness industry isn’t set up to support optimal health for most Americans. We’re all trying to figure it out together.

You can find Natalia Petrzela on Twitter and Instagram, or on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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