From left: Casey Johnston, Cami Árboles, Shana Minei Spence, Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins (collage of individual portraits)
From left: Casey Johnston, Cami Árboles, Shana Minei Spence, Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins (collage of individual portraits)
From left: Casey Johnston, Cami Árboles, Shana Minei Spence, Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins (Photo: Caroline Tompkins; Nolwen Cifuentes; Caroline Tompkins; Nolwen Cifuentes)

Meet the Fitness Influencers Shaping Wellness in 2022


The world of fitness is always changing—for better and for worse. Here, we’ve focused on the bright side, spotlighting five faces in the health and wellness scene that are pushing for inclusivity, justice, and kindness, toppling old conventions to make their own.


Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

The world of fitness is always changing—for better and for worse. Here, we’ve focused on the bright side, spotlighting five faces in the health and wellness scene that are pushing for inclusivity, justice, and kindness, toppling old conventions to make their own.

Image
(Caroline Tompkins)

Casey Johnston

The columnist preaching the gospel of weight lifting

Like so many Americans, Casey Johnston was indoctrinated online—as a lifter, that is. In 2014, after years of viewing exercise as “necessary torture for staying ‘small enough,’ ” Johnston ran across a viral Reddit post documenting a woman’s six-month weight-lifting journey. She was impressed by her muscle mass, sure, but more so by her lifestyle: “She was working out way less than I was, and eating way more,” Johnston recalls. Taken with this approach to building muscle, she hit the gym and got hooked.

Johnston, 34, isn’t a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist. She’s just a writer who likes to get jacked. Her health-advice column, Ask a Swole Woman, which has bopped around the internet for five years—­running at various times on The Hairpin, Self, and Vice—now exists on Substack as She’s a Beast: A Swole Woman’s Newsletter. Johnston’s overarching message is simple: weight lifting is for everybody. Her writing touches on topics like “How Do I Even Get Started with Lifting Weights?” and “Shouldn’t Wonder Woman Be Bigger?” (You know, the important stuff.) It also stretches beyond technique, often zeroing in on the intersection of wellness, capitalism, and misogyny. She’s become a reliable source for explaining and dissecting the seedier parts of popular diet culture—criticizing self-help evangelist Tim Ferriss, condemning the unhealthy weight-loss messages of some Instagrammers, and blasting the gamers who called a certain female video-game character “too muscly.”

Is Johnston trying to turn us all into bros or trying to un-bro the weight room? Possibly she’s after a bit of both. She argues that we could all learn something from gym rats. “Many bros just take straightforward pleasure in a lot of the elements of lifting,” says Johnston, mentioning sensations like feeling a pump or doing a new one-rep max. She has come a long way from thinking about exercise as a basic necessity for staying small. And now, thanks to her, we can all confidently say: It’s fun to get bigger. —Grace Perry

Image
(Nolwen Cifuentes)

Cami Árboles

The instructor who prioritizes community over physical transformation

Cami Árboles prefers to talk about movement rather than exercise. Whether it’s pole dancing or yoga, movement is a necessary conduit for self-expression, a natural way to create and release energy. The 23-year-old founded the online community Mind Body Spirit Collective in 2020 to share this philosophy. “Movement should be a means unto itself,” she says, “instead of to a physical end.”

Árboles came onto the internet wellness scene in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic brought her final semester at Yale to an abrupt end and disrupted her after-college plan to move to New York City. She was stuck at home in Los Angeles, uncertain about what the future held. So she turned to yoga and pole dancing. She installed a pole in her aunt’s living room and recorded her routines for social media. “There was one video I filmed in a cap and gown right after I graduated. That one went extremely viral,” Árboles says.

The attention from those videos and her ­background as a yoga teacher led Árboles to create her own online coursework. “Movement is always so much better in a community setting, so I wanted to focus on a collective experience,” she says. “There’s a difference between buying a package of online yoga classes and practicing individually versus being in a community of people you’re moving with.” Mind Body Spirit now offers 21-day virtual communal programs; between 200 and 400 people enroll, according to Árboles, and have access to a private group chat led by the instructors.

Even though she has more than 160,000 Instagram followers—and was hired to teach the singer SZA how to pole dance—Árboles balks at the term influencer. Her goal is to instill confidence in women and nonbinary people. “Your body is not good or bad. It just is, and you should celebrate what it can do for you,” she says, picking up on an idea from the author Sonya Renee Taylor. “So much of the unlearning we do is unconditioning ourselves from these thoughts.” —Terry Nguyen

Image
(Caroline Tompkins)

Shana Minei Spence

The dietitian who thinks you could use another helping

“We’re in this mentality of everyone eats too much,” says Shana Minei Spence. “But what I’m noticing the more I counsel people is that, in general, people don’t eat enough.” OK, we’re listening.

Spence, 37, is an anti-diet-culture dietitian. Based in Brooklyn, she works for the New York City Department of Health and has a side gig helping clients, but she’s also big on Instagram (@thenutritiontea), where she has accumulated more than 175,000 followers over the past two years and consistently breaks down misconceptions about dieting, food science, and wellness. That includes tackling euphemisms for diet like clean eating (“What does that even mean? Washing potatoes?”) and detoxing (“You know you have organs for that, right?”), and rejecting claims that ethnic cuisines such as Chinese, Indian, and Mexican are unhealthy. Of course, as an Instagrammer, memes are her greatest weapon. In one recent post, she wrote: “ ‘I’m trying to avoid carbs. Also, I can only eat between 12 P.M. and 7 P.M.,’ ” followed by dozens of red-flag emojis.

Spence’s philosophy is rooted in an paradigm called Health at Every Size, which de-emphasizes weight as a health metric. In other words: being overweight doesn’t al­ways mean you’re not healthy, and being thin doesn’t always mean you are. Laboratory work, sleep patterns, and stress levels are more useful barometers of overall health than weight. In her practice, Spence has heard about too many doctors who, upon diagnosing a patient with any host of medical problems, instruct them to simply shed a few pounds without offering support or information on how to do so. Spence says that doesn’t actually address the issue of adjusting behavior. (Several MDs have told Spence that her social media posts inspire them to consider how their own weight stigma puts patients at risk.) While diet culture may still have us in its tendrils, Spence wants to help us claw our way out. —G.P.

Image
(Nolwen Cifuentes)

Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins

Native educators reclaiming wellness culture

Well for Culture began in 2013 as an online project by Chelsey Luger and Thosh ­Collins, two fitness enthusiasts who were eager to spread information about nutrition, wellness practices, and Indigenous values. Sharing workout tips, recipes, and cultural knowledge on social media channels eventually morphed into a new career for them as wellness educators and consultants. Luger and Collins, 34 and 39, respectively, now rewrite modern narratives regarding Native health while addressing complex histories and ongoing disparities.

“The media portrays ­Indigenous people through the lens of poverty porn and downtroddenness, but we have a culture that proves our strength and resilience,” says Luger, who is Lakota and Anishinaabe, enrolled in the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. “We have a long history of living active and balanced lifestyles, and a symbiotic relationship with the land that predates colonialism.”

Before the pandemic, Luger and Collins, who is Haudeno­saunee and O’odham and a citizen of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community, traveled extensively to lead wellness workshops. Most of that work migrated online during the pandemic, and since then they’ve stayed put in Tempe, Arizona, where they’re raising their two kids. “We don’t teach Indigenous culture,” Collins says. “We teach how to live a balanced lifestyle while applying Indigenous values and worldviews. The entire wellness conversation today is rooted in Indigenous knowledge from around the world, whether people realize it or not.” Together they adhere to a holistic health model called the Seven Circles of Wellness, which focuses on sleep, whole foods, movement, kinship and community, sacred space, connection to the land, and stress management—all inspired by aspects of Native culture.

“Wellness shouldn’t be about reaching a state of perfection,” Luger says. “It’s not superficial like the Western approach. It’s about knowing that you can return to balance whenever you feel ready to.” —T.N.

From January/February 2022 Lead Photo: Caroline Tompkins; Nolwen Cifuentes; Caroline Tompkins; Nolwen Cifuentes