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I came across this article a few days ago, and I’ve been dying to respond to it! Should Gyms Intervene If Someone Has an Eating Disorder?

Though the author debates both sides of the question and does not explicitly stated his opinion one way or another, in my reading, it seemed that he was leaning toward the position that the gym should intervene in some way.

I think there are a number of things to be considered here. First, what would intervening do? And the author, to his credit, does consider this. Personally, speaking, if I was working out out a gym and a random employee confronted me (even if sensitively) about my weight loss, I don’t know what it would accomplish. Mostly likely, it would succeed in making me feel embarrassed enough to switch gyms, where my “secret” was not known. We need to remember that eating disorders still carry a stigma. They shouldn’t – there is nothing shameful or “wrong” about having an eating disorder – but they do. To approach someone that you don’t know well and confront them about an eating disorder, while sometimes necessary and beneficial, also has a high risk of backfiring because it is likely that the person will feel embarrassed or shameful. The thing about eating disorders is that yes, in some cases, they are a very visible disease. For me, that is one of the hardest things – people assume that they can tell how well I’m doing (or not doing) by my weight. And it often means that I’m “confronted” with concern or questions if I lose a lot. When that has happened – especially when it has involved someone whom I don’t know all that well – it has felt sort of like that dream where you end up at school or work and find that you’re naked.

I think that if a gym were to decide a member needs to be checked in with, that should ideally come from someone who has an established relationship with the member – a personal trainer, a nutritionist who might work at the gym, etc. I think that it puts an e.d. person in a difficult position to approach them about having an e.d. without having the proper sort of relationship with them to really offer personal support (i.e. a gym manager who doesn’t work closely with members).

The author of the article writes, “when gyms fail to intervene with members who are below a healthy body weight, they risk becoming complicit in the delusions held by these individuals, strengthening the perception that more exercise and weight loss is needed. Not only does this harm the person with the eating disorder, it has the potential to harm other members of the gym who may begin to see the person’s behaviour as normal or even exemplary.”

The thing is, with an eating disorder, the “delusions” are already in place, though they may vary by type/severity of eating disorder, as well as by individuals. Gyms may foster a competitive atmosphere, and atmosphere that can be triggering based on the “perfection” of bodies, etc., etc. But, the “delusions” are going to be there whether or not the gym steps in. And the author needs to remember that “I’m worried about you working out so much because of your weight and eating habits” can sound like a compliment if the eating disorder gets a hold of it!

He makes an interesting point about potential harm to other members of the gym. Certainly, an eating disordered person can be triggering to other people. In my experience, however, the people who get triggered are the people who already having an eating disorder and/or serious body image concerns. In my discussions with people, it seems that most healthy people (by which I mean they are e.d.-free) feel sad and/or scared for an obviously eating disordered person, rather than envious. I also think that the problem is not having an eating disordered person present, but rather, a lack of knowledge and education about how severe and deadly eating disorders are. We live in a climate that glamorizes eating disorders and fosters envy of them. In my view, that is the problem, rather than the presence of an eating disordered person.

Perhaps my biggest critique of the article is that it bolsters the assumption that we can tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by the way she or he looks. And, yes, in some cases, we can make an educated guess based on a person’s appearance. But eating disorders are not always visible. In fact, as most people with eating disorders maintain a weight in the “health” range, they more often than not invisible. In fact, one of the most dangerous things to pair with exercise is purging, and though some anorexics do purge, most bulimics are at a “normal” weight, or are even a bit “overweight.” My guess is that the issue of eating disorders and gym memberships runs much deeper and is much more complex than the author realizes (and he does mention this).

So, should a gym intervene if they suspect someone has an eating disorder? I’m not sure. I think that if there is someone at the gym who has a long-lasting, one-one relationship with an at-risk member and can offer support, then it might be helpful if that person approached the member non-conversationally and appropriately. Should a gym employee who does not know the member well approach them? I don’t know.  I worry that that would only encourage further isolation and alienation.

I am totally supportive, however, of gyms having info available on eating disorders and treatment resources. I also think it would be incredibly progressive if gyms had e.d. and body image educational programs as well as nutrition education/counseling, etc. I think it’s important for people working in health and fitness to help promote an environment of holistic prevention.

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