At BodyMatters we have recently had an influx of enquiries from people who frequent gyms and have noticed other members exhibit behaviour that appears to be suspiciously ‘eating disordered’. It can be a horrible feeling being either a staff member at a gym, or a gym member, witnessing someone’s weight drop to dangerous levels in front of your eyes- and feeling absolutely powerless to do anything about it.
Be mindful that it is impossible for you to diagnose an eating disorder: eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and you cannot tell just by looking at someone whether they are sick. Also be mindful that, whilst weight is in some ways an obvious indicator, many people with eating disorders are a “healthy weight”. A gym is often a mine field of eating disorders sufferers, however in many cases this is not apparent.
People with eating disorders usually display a cluster of symptoms. Some indicators that may be obvious in a gym setting include:
* Weight fluctuations or weight loss
* An exercise regime that increases in intensity- such as exercising every day of the week or exercising more than once per day
* An unsafe or compulsive quality to the exercise, such as with an injury or at an abnormal pace
* Exercise prioritized disproportionately to other aspects of the persons life
* Distress exhibited when the exercise regime is interrupted or cannot be completed
We firmly recommend you approach the person of concern and facilitate them into specialized treatment for the problem. Also, everyone in a gym environment can promote a healthy relationship with exercise to ensure the gym is not a breeding ground for eating disorders.
5 tips for coaches/ gyms
1. If you are concerned about someone, refer to your employer’s policies. These should include parameters around who is welcome to participate in a gym programme and procedures about potential managing health issues in members, including eating disorders. If this is not in the existing policy we recommend you raise this with your employer, who can approach an eating disorder specialist to assist in developing something appropriate. Having formal guidelines and parameters is very helpful in reinforcing your duty of care.
2. Approach the person of concern and establish a ‘health plan’. This will enable you to obtain vital information about their weight, height, strength etc and monitor how they are progressing. Should it become apparent that they do have a problem, or your concern about their health increases, you are well positioned to present your case.
3. Do not be afraid about approaching someone you have concerns about. Do so in a caring and non-judgmental manner. Educate yourself on eating disorders first. Seek to understand how they are going, rather than accuse them of having a problem. Your objective is to get that person into specialized treatment (contact The Butterfly Foundation for referral information). Ambivalence about the problem is a normal part of the illness, so they may not agree they have an eating disorder however they may still agree to consult a doctor.
4. Undertake research into what might be appropriate (and inappropriate) for a person to participate in if they do have an eating disorder. Exercise in a group, controlled environment is usually the most helpful to ensure these parameters are adhered to. Some guidelines can be found here.
5. Ensure the gym culture reinforces information and education about healthy exercise, establishing limits around this. Educate about the benefits of rest. Adopt and reinforce a health-based approach to exercise. Do not participate in weight-focused exercise.
5 tips for gym members
1. Alert your concern to management of the gym, and provide them with information regarding your concern. They may not have noticed the problem. Some gyms might turn a blind eye to the problem, for numerous reasons. However knowing that their members are concerned about someone’s welfare may push them into action if they are not doing anything.
2. Educate yourself on eating disorders. This will assist you in your judgment and understanding of their situation.
3. Approach them from a position of concern, not judgement. Talk to the person about how they are feeling.
4. Keep your concern and friendship broad- focus on them as a person, rather than being preoccupied about the possible eating or weight issues.
5. Suggest they ‘check in’ with a doctor or mental health professional.