Massy Arias, 29, — formerly known as MankoFit on social media — could barely do three push-ups when she started working out as a way to overcome depression in 2012. But her drive to keep improving every time she walked into the gym turned her into a fitspirational phenomenon with 2.8 million Instagram followers in just a couple years. Today, Arias is a celebrity health coach, the author of three fitness e-books, and an ambassador for Target C9 and CoverGirl. Here, she talks about how she became Insta-famous for her abs, and how she dealt with getting pregnant and giving birth last year.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and lived there with my mom, a nurse practitioner, my dad, an auto repair shop owner, and five brothers until I was 13. That’s when my dad, two of my older brothers, and I moved to New York City so my siblings and I could have a better education.
High school was tough because I struggled to speak English and was bullied for it, but I graduated and went to Queens College in New York to study biology and pursue a career as a forensic pathologist. It seems weird, but I have a lot of family in the medical field, and I thought I wanted to be the person who found out why someone died.
Going into my freshman year at Queens College, I was living with my dad when one of my brothers was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a type of cancer. My mother flew to the U.S. to help take care of him while he was bedridden in the hospital. My mom and I took turns staying with him, and the whole experience was super stressful. I was either at the hospital with my brother doing my homework, in class, or working my part time job in retail.
Later that year, my brother went into remission, which felt amazing. But the experience made me realize that I didn’t want to be around death every day. I decided to transfer to another school to pursue an associate’s degree in nursing, which would only take two years to complete. It seemed like a lot less work and more in line with what I wanted to do with my life.
The following year, my dad told us that he wanted to retire and move back to the Dominican. He asked me to come with him, but I decided that I wanted stay in the U.S. to finish school. However, since I had been living with my dad, that meant, at 19 years old, I had to get a full time job to support myself while still attending school full time. On top of all that, I got into an emotionally abusive relationship which took up a lot of energy. With my crazy schedule I felt like a robot. I didn’t have time to have a life and I didn’t feel like myself.
Nursing school ended up being a lot harder than I thought. I struggled to keep up in my studies because I was so busy working to pay my bills. And in my nursing program, only 60 of the 600 students were chosen to continue on to the clinical portion of nursing school, where you get hands on training in an actual job setting. If you weren’t picked, you had to transfer to another school or try to apply again the next year. By the middle of my first year in nursing school, my grades were slipping so low that I didn’t even apply to the clinical program.
My dad moved back to the U.S. two years after he left, and I moved back in with him, so that was a relief. But I started to feel depressed because I wasn’t living up to the expectations I set for myself. I always prided myself on being a good student, and I wasn’t keeping up in school. I thought that I would be in a healthy relationship, and I was with a guy who made me feel bad about myself. I felt like I was failing in every aspect of my life.
At the peak of my depression in 2011, I quit my full time job at Levi's where I was an assistant manager because it was just too hard to go to work. But I told my dad I got fired and asked him for financial support. He said he would help me out for a while. I stopped going to class and eventually dropped out of nursing school. I finally got sick of my boyfriend cheating on me and ended our relationship.
With no school, no boyfriend, and no job, I isolated myself in my room. I didn’t have an appetite, started losing my hair, and refused to shower. Despite all of that, I didn’t want to go on medication for my depression because I didn’t want to depend on it. Instead, I tried a bunch of homeopathic remedies, like St. John’s wort and hypnotherapy, which didn’t work.
After eight months of this really deep depression, one of my friends, who was a personal trainer, suggested I try going to the gym. Up until that point, I had only been working out sporadically by tagging along with my ex-boyfriend when he went to the gym. I’d jump on the elliptical or walk uphill on the treadmill, but didn’t do much else.
So I started out doing the same things I did before, using the elliptical for five to 10 minutes. But that didn’t help me mentally, so I kept increasing the amount of time I spent on the machine. After a few weeks, I started to feel more confident and looked forward to my new fitness routine. My depressive symptoms started to fade as my mind became preoccupied with working out, seeing my new friends at the gym, and getting outside. As I kept exercising, I realized that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to get mental clarity. That’s when I moved on to weights and other kinds of workouts. I didn’t have the money to pay a personal trainer, but I'd ask my personal trainer friend for advice and read a lot of fitness articles.
Every time I stepped into the gym, I stepped outside of my comfort zone. It was a mental release. My workouts would sometimes be as long as two hours because I wanted to feel good, and what made me feel good was pushing myself at the gym. Now, I realize that was overtraining, but at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing.
In 2012, I created my first Instagram account, @m_bekko. I just used it as a way to make friends and post pictures of my life, which occasionally included photos of me at the gym. But about a year after starting my account, I posted a photo of my flat stomach and it was featured on the Instagram discovery page. It blew up. I got all of these messages from people asking me what I do at the gym, so I decided to start an account documenting my personal fitness journey, which was @mankofit. I think it got so big because people saw the progress I was making.
As my Instagram following grew, I got direct messages from people asking me to train them. I told them I wasn’t a certified personal trainer, but they didn’t care and I did enough research about fitness to feel confident that I could show them proper form. So I brought them to my gym and led them through my typical workout, we’d do basic things like squats, deadlifts, and bicep curls. This probably sounds controversial, but I wasn’t worried people would get hurt because we weren’t doing any moves that thought were super strenuous or complicated. It was more like we were working out together than me actually training them, but I charged $400 for 12 sessions with me.
After about six months, my gym caught on to my training sessions and revoked my membership — you’re not allowed train people there unless you’re one of the gym’s trainers. After that, I started holding group workout classes in Central Park, charging people $10 a class. When I got more than 30 people coming to my class every week, the park told me that I needed a permit to teach classes there, which cost thousands of dollars, so I had to stop. By 2013, I had 34,000 followers.
That year, I decided to get my personal training certification from the American Council on Exercise because I finally had the money to pay for it and cover my bills. Plus, being a certified personal trainer solidified my reputation. After receiving my certification in 2014, I started working at a chiropractic and physical therapy medical group called Park Avenue Spine. It was great because the physicians referred clients who needed to build more strength, and most people who can afford a chiropractor or physical therapist can afford personal training sessions, so I was making more money. I learned a lot of different styles of training from the other trainers I worked with. For example, one of the mobility coaches taught their clients stretches to loosen up before a marathon, so I’d integrate those stretching moves into my training, too.
Five months into my new job, I decided to compete in a bodybuilding competition. I was always preaching to my Instagram followers that they should get out of their comfort zone, and this felt like a way for me to practice what I preached. Over the course of a year, I did five competitions, placing in the top four every time, but it was hard on my body. At one point, I was running eight miles a day for months because my bodybuilding coach told me that I looked too muscular.
When a supplement company (which shall remain nameless) took notice of me on Instagram, and offered me a job helping them launch live workouts on their site, I left Park Avenue Spine. At this point, Instagram video didn’t even exist, so I thought this was a really cool opportunity.
Not long after I started, the supplement company realized they couldn’t actually develop the videos, so they asked me to transition into becoming a spokesperson for their brand. At the time, they were recruiting models, trainers, and bodybuilders to promote the supplements on social media. As a spokesperson, I posted about the supplements on my Instagram page and they used my name when promoting their product. I slowly started to realize that the ingredients in the supplements weren’t great, and it felt weird to tell people that the supplement I was taking was responsible for the way I looked. I knew that you couldn’t get in as good of shape as I was in by just taking this supplement. I mean, I was training for a bodybuilding competition. When I found out the company was paying people who had surgeries and used steroids to advertise their product, I decided I didn’t want my personal brand associated with that, so I left in 2015.
I was also frustrated with the fitness industry in general for being deceptive. I decided to move to Los Angeles to be with my now-husband and revamp my personal brand from fitness to more health and wellness focused. I started posting about body confidence and getting healthier instead of losing weight or gaining muscle, and created workouts people could do anywhere to make fitness accessible to everyone. I don’t follow the fitness Instagram trends like showing a flexed and not flexed side-by-side photo, for example. And I don’t like to post a lot of body selfies anymore because I don’t want to attach my workout methods to the way I look. I want to inspire people based on my workouts and my philosophy, not my appearance.
By creating my own workouts and shooting my own videos, I could maintain the integrity of my brand and make money from my online coaching programs, Tru supplements, and e-books. I also make money by partnering with brands like Target, which led me to be an ambassador with C9, but I won’t post about any brands that I don’t already use. I think this pays off because brands want to work with people who already like their product, which feels authentic to consumers.
When I got pregnant with my first child in 2016, I was relieved that the sponsorship offers kept rolling in. I consciously didn’t worry about how my pregnancy was going to impact my career. I saw it as an addition to my life, not something that interrupted what I was already doing.
I posted my pregnancy workouts on Instagram because it came naturally to me. I did have some commenters criticize me for exercising while pregnant, but I didn’t see the point in responding to their ignorant comments because I knew what I was doing was safe and I had my doctor’s approval. What did bother me was being body shamed for not showing early in my pregnancy. It was frustrating because it felt like people just commented on the photo without realizing that I have strong abs, which led me to show my pregnancy later.
In the end, my pregnancy actually made me a better trainer, and my business only grew. I had to learn ways to modify my workouts to suit my body and baby, which was helpful for my followers who were also pregnant at the time. Plus, I could relate to women who had given birth in a way that I never had before. I knew what their bodies had been through. That said, the trickiest part was trying to keep my workouts varied while only doing the exercises I was cleared to do, but I think I pulled it off by doing a lot of balancing moves, strength training, yoga, and stretching.
After giving birth, I was shocked to see what my body looked like. On top of that, I had to stop working out for two months after delivery so my stomach walls could close up and my pelvic floor could recover. I knew how important it was to rest and heal, but when my postpartum depression and anxiety kicked in, I struggled with not being able to go to the gym. To deal, I talked with my family about how I was feeling, went on walks, and did modified exercises my doctor said I could do, like glute bridges, modified side planks, and the cat and cow yoga poses. I knew I was going to get back to my body, I just had to trust the process.
It was really hard to work, in general, right after giving birth, but now I have my sister-in-law who helps to take care of my daughter when I’m busy. When I’m working with companies who want me to travel, I always try to negotiate an extra seat on the plane for my sister-in-law to come so I can bring my baby.
Every day at work for me is different, but a normal day would be having meetings with my website CFO and customer service partner about complaints or how to develop more products. Then, I go work out and try to come up with ideas for new content for Instagram, YouTube, etc. Afterwards, I come home and film workouts for Instagram. I’m working all the time, but I really am doing what I love every day. I feel spread thin whenever I’m launching programs or trying to come up with ideas for fresh workout programs, but my husband takes on tasks like building my websites, getting the graphics for the workout plans, and negotiating contracts, which allows me to be creative while he produces everything. I lean on my family a lot, and they help me so much.
Right now, I’m really focused on developing an app so all my programs can be accessed in one place. In the future, I’d love to be on a TV show that incorporates entertainment and fitness. It’s been hard to establish that, despite the fact that my business was founded on my social media following, I am a businesswoman, not an Instagram star. It’s really hard to lose that title because that’s how people know me, but it’s not who I am. I am a professional with a business, just like the CEO of any other company. I think people are finally starting to see me that way.