Do you have a parasocial relationship with your favourite trainer?

After spending so much time sweating through online sessions, it’s only natural to develop emotional attachments to our trainers – but is it always healthy? Kate Lancaster investigates. 

While exercising at home had always been preferential to some, global lockdowns during the pandemic forced the uninitiated to quickly get acquainted with at-home exercise programs.

Despite being URL rather than IRL, online workouts were now being streamed into our abodes without any in-person premise. Our trainers took up residence in our lounge rooms, where there was no fear of judgement, and activewear (or even pants) were optional. While a physical barrier remained, others – mental, emotional – could be brought down, allowing us to develop a feeling of intimacy with our online fitness cohorts like never before.

After a few weeks spent logging in and training with the same person on your screen day in and day out, you begin to develop a familiarity with them – which explains why so many online fitness trainers become popular identities. Workout programs often become a fundamental part of our everyday lives, so it’s only natural that we become a little attached to those involved, right?

This is known as a parasocial relationship, where the audience feels like they know the person on their screen, despite the fact that they’ve never actually met. While you might have created plenty of memories with your virtual workout friend – such as smashing a PB thanks to their encouragement, or turning around a tough day with one of their sessions – it can be weird to think that they actually have no idea that you even exist.

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Lockdown only served to further parasocial relationships in the fitness space, as social distancing made in-person interactions sparse.

“No matter where I am – in the studio, out for dinner, walking down the street – I know a Fluidform at Home smile from a mile away,” says Kirsten King, founder of Fluidform At Home (FFAH). “Post lockdown one, I was inundated with clients introducing themselves to me everywhere I went. [They’d say] ‘Hi Kee, you don’t know me but you are in my living room every morning, you saved my life during lockdown’.”

For many in lockdown, an early AM date with their dumbbells or yoga mat was the only time they’d encounter another human for the day. “In some ways, these relationships are more intimate than some of my in-studio clients, because most of these people are working out with me five times a week,” Kirsten explains.

“They see my face, hear my voice and know that every day I am the one solid constant in their life. They often say good morning and goodbye to me and their children even tell them, ‘It’s time to see Kee now’ – I have really become part of their household.”

Laura Henshaw, co-founder and CEO of Keep It Cleaner – the health and wellness program she began with best friend Steph Miller – believes such virtual intimacy comes with a sense of responsibility. “For some, we are the very first voices they’ll connect with that day. The fact that people are comfortable to roll out of bed and workout with us in their pyjamas, or that new mums are welcoming us into their homes to guide them back to exercise during the most vulnerable time in their lives is a huge responsibility, and it’s not something we take lightly,” she says.

“Our community puts a lot of trust into us and this is something that we are fully aware of. [They aren’t] just building relationships with Steph and I, but with our health and wellness experts too, so it’s incredibly important to us that every trainer and every workout is supportive, empowering and of most importantly, expert-led.”

My own parasocial relationships in fitness were actually revealed to me a few years back, when I met Laura and Steph for the first time. That is to say, it was the first time they’d met me – but I’d been virtually working out alongside them since 2017. While both were established models and influencers outside of KIC, I’d gotten to know them (see?) through doing their health and fitness program daily, after a having developed tenuous relationship with another exercise program.

KIC offered 20-minute strength, HIIT and boxing sessions that I could do at home alongside Steph and Laura, who made workouts feel fun. Each morning, I slowly began to repair my damaged relationship with exercise, one KIC workout at a time. Laura and Steph were always there when I logged in, makeup-free, guard down and laughing through a challenging session as we got stronger together.

Fast forward to facing them both in person a few years later, it felt odd to realise just how much I’d shared with them – without either even realising it. As we chatted, I wondered if I should tell Laura that I always laughed at her jokes during bicep curls with KIC’s Head Trainer, Danny Kennedy. Or admit to Steph that I’d become so obsessed with her favourite perforated black Adidas tights that I’d tried to track down my own.

I professed to Steph and Laura that I loved the program, but decided it would be too weird to disclose the rest right away. After all, it must be bizarre to imagine that people may have shared so much with you, before you’ve even really been introduced. Right?

“The idea can seem strange, but with the nature of exercise being quite intimate – and the detailed level of guidance and support we provide online –it doesn’t take me by surprise,” says Kirsten of meeting her devoted FFAH followers.

In fact, Steph finds fostering that deep virtual connection to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. “We have such a special bond with our KIC community. We love how comfortable and confident they are to come up to us to simply say ‘hello’ or share how KIC has had a positive impact on their lives. Just as we are open and honest with them, they are with us, and this is something that we really cherish,” she says.

Of course, there’s still a need to manage expectations around just how much should be shared with a relative stranger – both online and face-to-face. “I acknowledge that I do put myself out there to the public and share very intimate and personal things, but there’s definitely been times where I’ve had to politely ask people to take a step back and respect my privacy,” admits Steph.

After becoming a mum to son Harvey last year, she realised that she needed to prioritise boundaries with followers sharing opinions and advice.“Every body and every baby is different, so although people feel as though they can fully understand and relate to my personal experience, something that worked for them, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for me.”

Kirsten navigates online connections just as she does with in-studio clients – by sharing enough to be authentic and genuine with her followers, without compromising privacy or her personal life. “It goes without saying, maintaining boundaries is important for your own mental health, privacy and sense of self,” she adds.

Both KIC and FFAH have also created components that allow that their community to connect directly with each other, rather than just their trainers. Kirsten regularly runs a Buddy Challenge to bring like-minded members together to meet online and motivate one another through Kirsten’s classes. Meanwhile KIC’s Facebook community plays host to more than 45,000 users, many of which have created strong friendships, despite having never met.

Ultimately, it’s agreed that parasocial connections in fitness are a major positive. But according to Laura, being able to bring down that final physical barrier and meet the KIC community in person? Well, that still can’t be topped. “It’s so special to hear our community members say ‘you’re just like I thought you’d be’ – this is something we are really proud of.”

Kate Lancaster is a Melbourne-based writer, with an interest in beauty, culture and lifestyle and has a very active KIC membership. You can follow her here on Instagram.

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