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There are many situations where someone may directly witness or interact with an individual engaging in disordered eating or excessive exercise behaviors. For those working in fitness, this happens often.
While fitness can be an incredible tool for connecting with the body, taking care of it, and moving it in ways that bring joy and fulfillment, many engage in it for more cosmetic reasons, attempting to acquire the physical ideal society touts makes an individual valuable or worthy.
This environment can, understandably, bring about potentially harmful behaviors such as engaging in over-exercise, exercising intensely despite possible physical ramifications and injuries, and lack of sufficient nourishment considering energy expended in exercise.
Those that engage in these environments and behaviors absolutely want insight on what exercises to do or meals to eat that will help them reach their goal. However, they often don’t want input that might put them off of that goal.
So, if you are a fitness employee recognizing disordered and potentially harmful or life-threatening behaviors, what do you do?
Defining “Excessive Exercise”
Referring to anything as “excessive” is a judgment, and judgments are often subjective and change depending on to whom you are speaking. As far as excessive exercise, it is not currently an official diagnosis, and there really is no universal definition.
What is helpful in considering whether or not exercise behaviors have become excessive is to consider whether or not the individual ceases or slows these behaviors when consequences and complications occur.
For example, if an individual continues to run despite having an injury, that would be considered excessive.
Additionally, if an individual loses sleep because they wake up in the middle of the night to exercise, or if their exercising interferes with their ability to engage in work, school or socializing, or in any way negatively impacts their daily life or mental, emotional, or physical health but they continue to exercise, this is excessive behavior.
One study asserted that “there are individuals who exercise to the degree that causes them psychiatric distress, but they feel unable to stop (due to a sense of guilt at not completing planned sessions, or fear of severe withdrawal symptoms) .”
All of these behaviors are seen in individuals that experience excessive exercising as a symptom of their eating disorder. In fact, 20 to 50% of women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa engage in excessive exercise behaviors . However, the two do not have to occur together.
Many professionals refer to excessive exercise as either “primary,” where the exercise is pursued because of the rewards of the action itself, or “secondary,” when the exercise is a means to achieving another goal such as weight loss or anxiety relief .
Recognizing Excessive Exercise
The challenge with recognizing potential excessive exercising is that it is often seen as desirable in our society. Many may see an individual engaging in these behaviors and find them ambitious, healthy, and aspirational.
Until an individual becomes emaciated, no one says much of anything about a person that exercises often. Many do not know that weight is not always an indicator or health, or lack, therefore, and do not consider other visible disordered symptoms such as lanugo (fuzzy hair on the arms from malnutrition) or scarring on the hands from purging behaviors.
This likely comes from many societal pressures. For one, our society values “fitness” and “wellness” and assumes that working out is an indication of those aspects. Second, many people believe it is not their business to engage in a conversation with someone about their potentially harmful or negative behaviors. Third, individuals likely consider that they only have a snapshot and do not know the whole picture of this individual’s life.
All of these have a ring of truth to them. Engaging in physical activity can be one of many indicators of health. It is not appropriate to make a judgment on an individual based on their size. Lastly, you truly don’t know an individual’s whole story from seeing them at the gym.
With all of this in play, however, fitness professionals and gym employees do have a unique opportunity to recognize signs of disorder and potential harm and to say something that may save a life.
Addressing Excessive Exercise as a Fitness Employee
Despite the “none of my business” ideology expressed above, many individuals argue that, for fitness center employees, the same rules do not apply, as part of their job is ensuring that their equipment is used safely.
One survey found that 62% of fitness workers surveyed observed a client that they believed had symptoms of anorexia nervosa . However, the same survey learned that only 25% of workers surveyed had been trained to deal with such a situation .
The study considered that fitness instructors are often not fully informed and educated about the true symptoms and signs of an eating disorder, finding that only 32% could accurately identify a case of anorexia nervosa versus 88% of pediatricians .
One reason for this is weight bias, in that many believe that a key symptom of an eating disorder is physical appearance.
A study looking at Swiss fitness instructor’s behaviors when faced with a disordered individual learned that many of them were able to recognize the possible troublesome behaviors. However, they were unsure of how to confront the individual.
The study learned that instructors and employees that were older were more likely to approach an individual, indicating that their experience over time has helped them to feel more confident and capable.
It is clear that fitness employees and instructors, and their vulnerable clients, would benefit from more in-depth education on the actual symptoms of disordered eating and excessive exercise, management and communication techniques on how to approach these situations, and resources to provide their clients that they believe might have a problem.
It may be an uncomfortable conversation. However, working in the fitness industry means that people entrust the wellness of their bodies to you. This is an honor that means you guide them toward true health, whether that means having easy conversations or difficult ones.
Resources: College, F. et al. (2020). responses of fitness center employees to cases of suspected eating disorders or excessive exercise. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8:8.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published April 14, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 14, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC