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Behind those before-and-after Instagram photos: Money, marketing and meal replacements

Health and fitness-based companies like Beachbody that use the direct sales model are the Instagram generation version of Avon, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef and LuLaRoe.

Alyssandra Docherty, a health and fitness coach with Team Beachbody, exercises on her outdoor patio in south Philly Friday May 18, 2018.
Alyssandra Docherty, a health and fitness coach with Team Beachbody, exercises on her outdoor patio in south Philly Friday May 18, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Alyssandra Docherty can tell you everything you need to know about Shakeology: how the protein shake curbs cravings, how the vegan or whey protein lines taste, what "superfoods" they're made of, which of the nine flavors are best, and the cost: $130 for a one-month supply.

And then she can sell it to you and collect a 25 percent commission.

The 30-year-old Pennsport resident is a coach and saleswoman with Beachbody, a national company that uses independent contractors who leverage social media to sell fitness and nutrition programming like P90X, Insanity, and 21-Day Fix. In return, the coaches — who are also customers — are promised discounts on products plus a commission from sales and coach recruitment.

Companies like Beachbody that use the direct sales model are the Instagram-generation version of Avon, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, and LuLaRoe. The companies refer to the model as "multilevel marketing." Critics call them pyramid schemes.

Either way, some experts say consumers should be wary of that high school friend promising weight loss. There's a difference between makeup and health, and experts in diet and exercise worry that coaches for companies like Beachbody can easily trespass into health advice they're not qualified to dispense.

But the coaches see themselves more as cheerleaders for products that they say changed their lives. The before-and-after photos are ubiquitous — thousands of Americans say they lost weight, gained confidence, addressed chronic pain, and turned their health around because of Beachbody, Isagenix, and programs like them. And the online communities are folks keeping each other accountable, largely on social media.

Social media "used to be a vice to kind of escape the stresses of the day … now that becomes my motivator," said Dave McClain, a Beachbody coach from Willow Grove who said he lost 160 pounds with the program. "When I see somebody with three kids working and having all these responsibilities still getting their workout in, what's my excuse?"

What’s the financial incentive?

Founded in 1998, Beachbody originated as a fitness DVD company that sold most of its products online and via infomercials, with its first major success being P90X, an intense 90-day fitness regimen that counts Paul Ryan as one of its fans.

The company launched Team Beachbody, its multilevel marketing business model, in 2007. Since then, the network has grown to more than 300,000 coaches (a Facebook group for Philadelphia-area coaches has 2,500 members), and — taking a page out of the Mary Kay playbook — the company often highlights coaches who make a living doing it.

But that's not the norm. A financial disclosure filing shows that in 2017, Beachbody coaches earned an average of about $2,600. That figure includes high-ranked coaches who make up 20 percent of the workforce. The 80 percent of coaches who have not achieved a "rank" averaged $367 in 2017. More than half of Beachbody coaches didn't earn a check at all.

That income doesn't account for expenses. Coaches pay $40 to sign up, plus a $16-per-month fee (about $230 in the first year). In addition, coaches buy their own discounted fitness programs and Shakeology, Beachbody's signature product, a weight-loss shake billed as "a daily dose of dense nutrition."

Last year, the company reported revenue of $1 billion. Beachbody didn't respond to an interview request.

Docherty, a theater lighting designer, said that at one point during her three-year stint with Beachbody, she was dedicating between six and 12 hours a week to make $300, putting her well above the average. She said what she got out of it was an online "family" that provides a sense of accountability.

"I do it because I love it, not necessarily to make money," said Docherty, who posts on Instagram as @healthywithaly. "The biggest part for me is the community aspect."

Plenty of coaches put in a couple of hours a week and make enough to pay for their own shakes and exercise videos. Carl Jamison, 40, a Beachbody coach who lives in Bella Vista, said his goal was to make $100 a month to cover the cost of Shakeology. He hasn't gotten there yet. Sabrina Purnell, a 43-year-old Beachbody coach from New Castle, Del., said she makes between $150 and $200 per week, putting in about an hour a day managing 15 coaches under her.

A lucky few make significantly more. One Western Pennsylvania coach told Forbes she makes more than $2 million a year selling Beachbody products, largely because she has 20,000 coaches working below her and contributing to her bottom line. She personally sponsored about 700 of them.

>>READ MORE: Paleo, keto, fasting, Whole30: Why food tribes are on the rise

Isagenix, a multilevel marketing company that produces weight-loss food and supplements, works similarly. Melissa Bocage, an Isagenix associate who lives in South Philadelphia, said she makes enough extra cash to cover the cost of her Isagenix shakes, supplements, and protein bars.

Since she started working as an associate about two years ago, Bocage, 38, estimates she's turned about 45 others on to the program.

The companies use pyramidlike sales structures, though they insist they're not illegal pyramid schemes. William Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey, has studied multilevel marketing companies. He said the case law is clear: Companies that can't demonstrate a consumer demand for their products outside their own employees and contractors are operating a pyramid scheme.

Though he won't call multilevel marketing companies illegal "without evidence," Keep tells his students who are aspiring entrepreneurs to stay away.

"I always warn them," he said, "that this path is fraught with problems."

Cheerleading or ‘quackery’?

Annie Acri, 32, of Manayunk, is engaged and belongs to several fitness-related Facebook groups. Said another way, she's a prime target for people selling through Beachbody, Isagenix, and others. She said she'd been solicited by about 10 people in the last several years, one of whom she blocked on Facebook for trying to sell her Beachbody tapes and shakes.

"I'm not really a shakes person," Acri said. "I'd rather eat food."

Multilevel marketing companies are all over social media. Beachbody recommends coaches post on Facebook two to four times a day, Instagram one to three times a day, and Twitter "as much as possible."

The company is clear about what those posts should not be: any statement that could be perceived as a medical or drug claim.

That's because Beachbody coaches aren't required to hold a license or certification. Some choose to attend training programs through the company, and others are personal trainers by trade. But plenty are "trained" solely through online literature.

Bocage, a nurse, is cognizant of this. She said that Isagenix changed her life for the better but that she would never promise clients it will change theirs.

"I don't think there's any one thing that can help people," she said.

Experts say consumers should still be vigilant about nutrition and fitness advice they get online.

"I would never read a mechanical engineering book and call myself a mechanical engineer," said Stella Volpe, a Drexel University professor and chair of the department of nutrition sciences. "People think nutrition is just that easy without any regard for the fact they could be harming people."

Volpe has several certifications and went to school for more than a decade. So did her colleague Michael Bruneau, an assistant professor in the department of health sciences. Bruneau, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, said the concept of timeline-based fitness regimens (21 days, 80 days, etc.) is "quackery."

Though the programs promise quick results, he said, "the sustainability is difficult."

Katie Cavuto, a Philadelphia chef and registered dietitian, said the problem with untrained health and fitness coaches is they often base advice on their success.

"What so many of those coaches are bringing is their own anecdotal experience," she said, "without a broader understanding that nutrition is not one-size-fits-all."

McClain, who serves on a local board of Beachbody coaches who moderate conversations online and plan in-person events, said those critics are right. He said he doesn't claim to be an expert but rather a role model. And as for  sustainability? He admits that, too. Not every program is sustainable, he says, but for those 21, or 80, or 90 days, that's not necessarily the point.

"Even that amount of time sets you up for success," he said, "because you realize what you're capable of."