Modern Jane Fonda

How social media stars are redefining fitness one woman at a time


Jessi Mechler didn't believe people who said they loved working out. She says she used to hate exercising and finding new ways to be healthy — but then, Mechler started to look to social media for inspiration.

"If I'm feeling unmotivated to work out, I'll go on Instagram, I'll scroll through their accounts," Mechler said. "It's reminding myself of what I'm doing what I'm doing and why I want to live a healthy lifestyle."

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Mechler is talking about Tone It Up (@toneitup), a fitness program designed by two women, Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott. Tone It Up archives workouts, meal plans and lifestyle habits, and the bulk of their marketing is conducted through social media. That's how Mechler found them, and she felt inspired by their outlook on fitness.

Karena and Katrina introduced this fun, kind of girly, but also a little bit badass, way of living," Mechler said. "I saw how happy they were and they looked healthy."

"Karena and Katrina introduced this fun, kind of girly, but also a little bit badass, way of living," Mechler said. "I saw how happy they were and they looked healthy."

Dawn and Scott are one of many fitness and lifestyle instructors that have established themselves on social media. Cassey Ho (@blogilates), Kayla Itsines (@kayla_itsines) and Emily Skye (@emilyskyefit) are all up-and-coming household names of a new kind of personal trainer in the digital space. The term is "social media influencer," and in fitness, the title is usually held by women.

Social media influencers are people who are able to connect to their followers over various platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. They market to a niche audience and influence them to make lifestyle choices in things such as fashion, travel and fitness. According to Mechler, a fitness influencer is "someone who is relatable" with an easy-to-follow workout regimen.

"With Tone It Up, the girls just made it seem really fun and they didn't make it seem like a chore," Mechler said. "I feel like they're my friends."

Tone It Up's most popular video is a 'Total Body Tone Up.' They start off with a series of squats. "For this workout, you'll need a pair of dumbbells, a mat, a water by your side — maybe a friend?" Scott says as she smiles over at Dawn. This is the kind of content that draws in female viewers like Mechler.

Relatable content is one of the reasons why female influencers seem to be raking in followers at a faster rate than their male counterparts. Tone It Up had a 53 percent increase in Instagram follower count from July 2016 to August 2017, bringing their total reach on the platform to 1.27 million followers. In Forbes's top 10 fitness influencers of 2017, eight influencers are women, and they had a total reach of over 25 million people. To be a woman in the digital fitness world is simply easier.

Mechler is an unapologetic follower of the movement. According to Mechler, the difference boils down to following women who understand women.

"It's OK when you're having a day when you look bloated — everyone does — it doesn't matter," Mechler said. "Women know what it's like to be a woman. Guys don't know that."


In 2015, Katie Austin (@katieaustin) started "Get Fit with Katie," a fitness lifestyle brand for young women. Austin is the daughter of '90s fitness guru Denise Austin, host of Getting Fit with Denise Austin. According to her website, Austin was recognized by Seventeen Magazine as one of the top fitness Instagram accounts to follow. Her latest endeavor was on the Rachel Ray show as a guest with her mother.

Austin graduated from the University of Southern California in 2016. She began devoting her time to her business, and her clientele grew to over 2,500 people. She credits her success to social media.

"Social media is basically how anyone knows about me," Austin said. "I think interacting with followers is a huge part of staying loyal so they can see you're a real person."

The results speak for themselves: today, Austin has over 111,000 followers on Instagram and 28,000 subscribers on YouTube. Austin says it all comes down to communicating with her audience.

"When I don't tell my followers that a new video exists, I see zero traction on it," Austin said. "It's crazy how one post on Instagram can really generate some revenue."

Brett Hoebel (@bretthoebel) started Hoebel Fitness shortly after his college graduation in 1993. His business led him to create the 20 Minute Body book and DVDs, and he went on to become a trainer on season 11 of NBC's The Biggest Loser. His credentials in fitness also booked him cameos on Dr. Oz, Steve Harvey and The View, and he was featured in Shape, Self, Vogue and Details magazines.

Like Austin, Hoebel believes in the power social media has in branding a business. As a longtime member of the fitness community, he's seen how social media can change the credibility of an influencer.

"A lot of the people I know that have put really their career into being a fitness expert have not put that effort into their social media," Hobel said. "A lot of them have lost credibility because they don't have followers. It's kind of a sad thing."

Hoebel has over 18,000 followers on Instagram and 3,177 subscribers on YouTube, a drastic difference compared to Austin's reach despite being in the business for much longer.

The reason for this? Hoebel has a hunch.

"I know there are more women consuming fitness classes and group classes," Hobel said. "On the social media accounts that I follow, I do see a lot more women there. I think that is going to make it a more difficult time for a guy."

Hoebel is right. Business Insider reports that while 150 million people are on Instagram, 68 percent of that audience is female. That leaves a much smaller audience for Hoebel to cater to. Follower count is not only important for an influencer's credibility, but it affects their income as well. According to Forbes, Youtubers with 7 million subscribers can make as much as $300,000 on one video. For micro-influencers like Austin and Hoebel, they can make up to $5,000. But that's not the only thing holding Hoebel back.

Hoebel says he had to learn how to brand himself on social media the hard way, even though marketing is "inherent" to him.

"The old way of marketing and branding is not happening anymore — this is how it's done," Hoebel said. "You may have a knack at marketing and branding, but that doesn't mean you have a knack at social media."


Perhaps one of the driving reasons for fitness influencer success is that bodies are more enticing to look at, and that reigns true for females. In other words: sex sells.

"In the fitness industry, you're partly selling your body," Austin said. "I just followed Sierra Skye (@sierraskyee). I can be straight up with you — I followed her because I think she's really hot."

It's not an uncommon thought amongst influencers and followers. Hoebel believes that the difference in male and female anatomy is one of the many contributors to female influencer success.

"If you look at shirtless guy accounts versus a girl who's always in a bikini, I personally feel like the bikini accounts are likely to grow exponentially," Hoebel said. "The guy version of that — the shirtless guy — is not going to grow exponentially like that."

In most situations, half-naked bodies and sex work wonders for selling a product. But that's not the only reason why females are generating higher follower counts. Nicole Dunn, vice president of Dunn Pellier Media, represents both male and female fitness influencers through her company. Her experience in the industry echoes that of Mechler's thoughts — women relate to other women better over social media.

"Females talking about female issues would have a better rate at success than a male," Dunn said. "In my opinion, it depends on the brand and what they're putting out there."

The "brand" Dunn talks about is the workout. Working out for women typically isn't the same for men. It comes down to what muscle group each gender prioritizes. Kara Griffin knows this all too well.

Griffin (@feelthiswithkara), an up-and-coming fitness influencer in Los Angeles, trains people through two different workout styles. She practices her own brand called "Feel This" at Aura Yoga, which blends Pilates, dancing and yoga. Griffin is also an employee at Sweat Garage, where she trains clients through Sweat Garage's strength and weight workouts. While Griffin says both methods are for men and women, there's a disparity in who shows up for her "Feel This" classes.

"Typically, women will be drawn to the muscular endurance type workouts," Griffin said. "I do find more women in my classes. I do have men, but it's the minority for sure."

According to Griffin, men and women typically place emphasis on different muscle groups. Griffin's "Feel This" method works the whole body in what Griffin describes as a pyramid; a style of exercise that peaks in the middle with the highest intensity. The majority of the "Feel This" workouts are isolated in the glutes and core. On the other hand, her Sweat Garage workouts use heavier weights and are high intensity, and Griffin says she usually sees more men in those classes.

For Danielle Natoni (@daniellenatoni), another fitness influencer, men have never been part of her audience. Natoni says that 85 percent of her audience is women aged 25 to 45, and she doubts that'll change anytime soon.

"If I'm trying to be inclusive to males, and [I'm] talking about how hard it is to work out on my period — I'm not going to post that," Natoni said. "But it's relevant to my main audience."

Natoni's business model is to maximize her influence on females, and even compares her target audience to a doctor's specialty.

"There's general practitioners, but for the most part, most doctors specialize in something," Natoni said. "They know their niche, they know their market. When they do that, they're far more successful because they are focused and more direct."


There's a girl-power, woman-power movement going on right now."
- Brett Hoebel, fitness influencer

Austin, Griffin and Natoni started their businesses with one real goal in mind: to influence others to become healthier. What they were all able to tap into was the online female community, and that's where Hoebel finds himself at a slight disadvantage.

"In my opinion, there are a lot more women collaborating with each other than there are guys." Hoebel said. "There's a girl-power, woman-power movement going on right now, and I think those collaborations are an amazing way to grow your social media following. I don't see guys doing that."

It's what Natoni calls a "tribe," or a community of people that bring her closer to her followers.

"With a man, you're not going to get that same kind of connection," Natoni said. "There's not that same sense of community. I don't think they have that same sense of brother-ship as females do with sisterhood."

Social media is just one of the tools they use to brand themselves, but the success will continue to be skewed toward females for the time being. Despite that, all agreed that social media has not only changed the way people view fitness, but how they view themselves as well. For female followers like Jessi Mechler, turning to fitness is what changed her life for the better.

"It's self-care," Mechler said. "By loving yourself, you can exceed your love for so many other people, knowing that you're taken care of and you can take care of other people. I think that's what women need and that's what women want."