Eating Disorders in the Fitness Industry

My name is Jay, and I am an Athletic Personal Trainer. I am also someone who has recovered from an eating and exercise disorder. My issues, like every person who has had an eating disorder were individual to me. All too often we label or group eating disorders into specific categories, but anyone who has dealt with one themselves, or through someone else knows that the behaviours come in all forms, for all different reasons, and are reinforced from all different pressures.

Over the years working in the fitness industry I have met many clients who have dealt with some type of unhealthy attitude, feeling, or behaviour around food, exercise and the body. These people range in all genders, ages, and fitness levels. For many, a fitness facility can be a place of stress relief, personal growth and health promotion. Sadly, for many others it can also be a place of punishment, rules, and negative self image.

So how do we as fitness professionals encourage our clients to have a healthy relationship with themselves when it comes to these issues? I believe that we have to structure our work around 3 things; advertising, environment and referrals. Anyone who receives mail knows that most fitness advertising revolves around topics like weight loss, calorie burning, or toning up. While these topics are a part of the fitness industry, I believe that it is our job to shift the focus to include topics revolving around health promotion, rather than aesthetics. Our advertising should include benefits such as heart health, reducing chances of cancers, prevention of bone decay, and mental and emotional well-being. The list could be endless. It can simply be about reframing how our advertisements work. I would love to one day see an add that says “Working alongside my personal trainer I got stronger, happier, and regulated my blood pressure” rather than “ Working with my trainer I lost 25 pounds”.

Our environments should be welcoming. A place where clients can be reminded that walking in the doors can lead to health, not a place of negative behaviours. Having writing that reminds us that running isn’t about calorie counting, or that our number on a scale doesn’t define us, are two examples of how we could gently reinforce positive self reflection. Having images that are not exclusive to high end athletes or fitness models around our facilities is also an idea. Let’s have a wide variety of images, people of all body types who just care about leading healthy active lives.

Working in fitness we promote ourselves and each other through referrals. Any good trainer will have a connection to a nutritionist, chiropractor, and physiotherapist. We need to expand this to the spectrum of eating disorder specialists. While we can educate ourselves to identify signs, we are not the ones to treat these issues directly. It is integral to have information and connections within our community to give to clients who may need specific help.

For me, personal training is about helping my clients develop a relationship with their bodies that is beneficial to their health. While sometimes this does mean weight loss, muscle gain, or added flexibility, is just as much about listening to the way your body communicates with you. If it’s in pain, treat it. If it’s hungry, feed it. If it’s tired, rest it. In my experience the people who have the best long terms results are the ones who decide to embrace their bodies long before any physical changes occurred.

Jay Walker is a personal trainer at Absolute Endurance: Training and Therapy in Toronto, ON, Canada. He is currently working to obtain his Masters Degree in Psychology and Counselling.