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Armpit Fat? There's A YouTube Video For That

By Jessica Alpert

Did YouTube kill the video star?

That's what some fitness-types are saying. Consumers can access exercise programs of all stripes. From old-world Jack LaLanne to '80s Jane Fonda, from Insanity to the current YouTube HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions — the American fitness diet continues to evolve. At the moment, it's all about free and on-demand.

When Cassey Ho made her first YouTube exercise video, she had her pilates students in mind. Thirty of them. It was 2009 and Ho had recently moved from California to Boston to try a career in fashion buying. A few months later, she checked in on that YouTube video and there were thousands of views.

So she decided to make more.

The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow "POPsters" in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)
The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow "POPsters" in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)

By 2011, Cassey Ho was posting one video a week, calling her unique brand of pilates “POP Pilates,” essentially pilates to pop music. She named her channel “Blogilates” and an empire was born. Today, Cassey Ho was 1.8 million subscribers to her YouTube channel — 60,000 page views a day and 8 million views a month.

Ho credits humility as key to her success. “I think the reason for it’s [Blogilates] growth is the fact that I love teaching. I genuinely want to help people.”

Reach people she does — Blogilates is now the top fitness channel on the network. Ho also has a book deal, a DVD release and more original designs from her clothing line in the works for 2015.

YouTube has become the DIY video destination, from cupcakes to cosmopolitans, appliance repairs and yes — ab workouts — there's a video for every problem. Even armpit fat. Huge audiences combined with social media savvy has made the everyday people who dole out this advice into celebrities. “People cry and shake and get crazy when they see me," says Ho. She occasionally does tours to give live classes around the country. "When you go to Blogilates meet-ups, there are hundreds of people there and I get to hear their stories...and how these videos helped them battle eating disorders, lose a ton of weight. They are so positive and kind — they don't mind having to wait five hours in line to meet me. They make me want to work harder."

And it’s these young enthusiastic fans that are driving the YouTube content bonanza. In the first quarter of 2014, according to Nielsen, consumers aged 18-24 viewed 2 hours and 28 minutes of online videos per week — that’s nearly an hour more than the average for all adults.

Cassey Ho isn't alone. There's the two friends behind "Tone It Up," Elliot Hulse who creates videos like "Exercise for Heartbreak and Pain," and the husband and wife team behind "Fitness Blender" (known simply as Daniel and Kelli). Daniel and Kelli started their channel in their garage — in fact they still record videos there.

According to OpenSlate, a video analytics platform that analyzes all ad-supported content on YouTube, Fitness Blender averages around 8 million views per month. In an introduction video, Daniel explains that they started their channel because they "there weren't any fitness websites out there that actually focused on fitness — they were all about make-up, all about clothes, all about what you look like — not about what you do." Kelli adds that "everyone should have access to health fitness information regardless of their income or access to a gym."

Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, says the YouTube brand of exercise is more “personalized and more personal.

"In the past, the marketplace of exercise television or videos had to be more middle-ground...the new stuff is hyper-focused.”

From Jack LaLanne to Jane Fonda

YouTube fitness gurus join the complex and interesting history that is American fitness. There were the mail-order exercise booklets in the late 1800s and then in the early 1900s, women working out in silent movies. A few decades later, Jack LaLanne opened the very first modern Health Club in 1936 Oakland. He then became a fixture on the Santa Monica "Muscle Beach" scene, often called the birthplace of 20th century physical fitness. The original Muscle Beach dates back to the 1930s and was literally a section of beach with Works Progress Administration (WPA) installed fitness equipment and platforms.

Ozyurtcu, who has studied Muscle Beach, likes to call it the "CBGB scene for fitness….nothing sounds the same or looks the same but they all get each other." LaLanne worked out next to Vic Tanny the man who created the first high-end fitness club (think cucumber water and beautiful spa-like amenities). Joe Weider was there, too — the creator of the contemporary fitness magazine such as Shape and Men's Fitness. Weider was the first person to focus on "looking good naked," says Ozyurtcu. Muscle Beach also proved important for women. It was here that women were introduced to barbells and dumbbells. According to Ozyurtcu, Muscle Beach made it "good for women to exercise and lift weights...you can be beautiful and strong and have curves."

LaLanne made women's fitness his business. He began broadcasting his half-hour television show in 1951 and ending in the early 1980s. He often started an episode by asking for help. "Boys and girls....wherever mother is, grab her by the arm and tell her 'mother, come quick over to the television." But as Slate's Emily Yoffe so eloquently put it — "these vintage workouts are barely more strenuous than brewing a pot of tea."

Jane Fonda arrived in the 1980s and her first video "Workout" sold 17 million copies, making it one of the best selling videos of all time. She told the Daily Mail in 2012 that her earlier workouts were about "going for the pain." The endless leg lifts weren't just supposed to make you burn — she was aiming for agony. Fast forward to Cassey Ho and her HIIT videos: endless planks, ceaseless push-ups, scores of sit-ups. The pain is still there but the vibe has shifted. Unlike Fonda, Cassey Ho makes you feel like she's suffering, too. It's that accessibility and friendliness that attracts legions of fans, according to Ozyurtcu. You don't just work-out with Cassey Ho; if you follow her on Instagram, you know what she ate for breakfast.

But Are YouTube Videos Safe?

One of Eddie Phillip's biggest goals in life is to get people moving.  As a Harvard Medical School assistant professor and founder and Director of the Institute for Lifestyle Medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center, he's made exercise his business. While he can't endorse any specific YouTube fitness plans, he does think it's a good thing. "We have to bottle that momentum….if it takes a bra commercial to get someone moving, whatever ... it’s not like medicine has figured this out." Phillips is primarily focused on the couch potato.  "There is a saying in medicine 'don’t take a temperature unless you’re willing to treat a fever.' ”

A prescription from Dr. Deborah Cohan, a physician in San Francisco. (courtesy Deborah Cohan)
A prescription from Dr. Deborah Cohan, a physician in San Francisco. (courtesy Deborah Cohan)

So if your patient is obese, prescribe exercise. Literally. His "Exercise is Medicine" program now has 43 chapters around the world with doctors taking a more active interest and role in their patient's levels of physical activity. The idea is to include exercise as a vital sign (EVS). As Dr. Jed Weissberg.Senior Vice President for Hospitals, Quality, and Care Delivery at Kaiser-Permanente explains in an informational video about the nationwide health consortium "The medical assistant asks the patient, ‘How many days a week do you exercise, and on those days, how many minutes do you exercise? So that is adding exercise to the set of vital signs, just like we added cigarette smoking as a vital sign..."  According to the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, of the 1,793,385 adult patients at Kaiser-Permanente in 2012, 86% had an exercise vital sign in their medical record.

So are YouTube exercise videos safe? (Eddie Phillips kindly watched a series of YouTube videos for this article.) "Sedentary behavior will universally harm you." he says. "Everything has a relative risk. It’s relative to the most dangerous thing you can do….going from 0-60. You are on the couch and if Jan. 1 rolls around and say I’m 65 with heart disease and I do 1,000 planks...you’re probably still ahead of the curve compared to sitting on the couch."

Phillips points out that many of the most famous and powerful fitness gurus were not traditionally trained. As Jane Fonda points out, she had serious misgivings when she was approached to create her first video: "[I said] No way, I’m an actor and it would be bad for my career.” Richard Simmons has a BA in Art but that didn't stop him from producing 65 videos selling over 20 million copies.

Jane Roper, a mother of twin girls, gets it. When she can't do her five-mile run, she clicks on a video from the PopSugar channel. "I like the variety of workouts available, so I don't get bored. The vibe is ridiculously enthusiastic — fit, pretty, preternaturally peppy women with ponytails. I think if I was in a live version of those workouts, I'd feel sort of annoyed and embarrassed by the psychotic level of positivity and encouragement, but in the privacy of my living room or home office I don't mind it — and it actually seems to work."

The key when starting any fitness routine is using commonsense, says Phillips. "Life is not without risks.  I would rather see my patients do a YouTube video than sitting on the couch."

Jessica Alpert Twitter Managing Producer, Program Development
Jessica Alpert is the managing producer for program development at WBUR. In this position, she develops new podcasts and programs while also launching and nurturing WBUR’s newest projects.

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