When Eating Disorders Show Up in a Gym

Eating disorders present fitness professionals with a tough challenge. Working out is a good, healthy habit that health professionals encourage. But the line between healthy habits and unhealthy obsessions is very real. The National Eating Disorders Association describes the other side of that line as compulsive exercise.

Recognizable But Not Fully Defined

Fitness professionals see it. Some gym members may train excessively and persist despite injuries. They may experience depression, anxiety, or extreme guilt if they miss a workout. Compulsive exercise does not have a specific diagnosis in the DSM-5. It comes in different forms, with different descriptions. But the common thread is a healthful habit that morphs into an unhealthy obsession.

Writing in Esquire, Luke O’Neil describes coming to terms with his own exercise bulimia:

Today, I will run and lift weights, despite instructions from my doctors to take it easy this year as I deal with a back injury. I will run until my knees ache and my back stiffens, and I will manage the ensuing pain with too much Advil.

Being skinny, even with back pain, feels a lot better than being chubby. And then, once I feel I have earned it, I will eat a large meal, thereby resetting the cycle of guilt, and begin the process all over again tomorrow. It’s a problem as destructive as any other type of addiction, which, if we’re being forthcoming, I also have plenty of experience with.

Growing Professional Responsibility

Exercise is medicine, the American College of Sports Medicine tells us. As we increasingly rely upon fitness to promote health, fitness professionals have a growing responsibility to equip themselves to address compulsive exercise that becomes a health threat. Psychotherapist and fitness trainer Jodi Rubin explains:

This is not about asking someone who visibly has an eating disorder to leave the gym. It’s about being able to understand the dangers and destructiveness of what the disorder is doing and to offer your help.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post.

Gym, photograph © Stefano Mallus / flickr

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June 12, 2017