by Katie Simon Phillips
Note: This post originally appeared on Born Without Marbles and has been cross-posted with permission.
Recently, I have noticed that gyms have been popping up all over the place, and it is getting to the point where I would not be surprised if I went down to the bottom of my garden one day to find that a new branch had set one up in my shed between the empty plant pots and the lawn mower. Obviously I understand the benefits of the gym, getting a bit of exercise is important to keep healthy, and it is nice to have a place that allows you to look sweaty and tired whilst exercising without the potential judgement one would receive were you to start doing press ups in the cereal aisle at your local supermarket. The problem is that while gyms advocate health and fitness, there is often far too much emphasis on the idea that both are achieved by losing weight, which of course, it isn’t. For some people maybe, but the generalisation that weight loss will improve your health is a dangerous one, especially for people with eating disorders, and in my opinion it needs to be addressed by gyms immediately.
When I first joined my local gym I was 16 years old and in my preliminary session with a member of staff I stated that my goal was to lose weight. This member of staff then took my height, weight, and calculated my BMI to discover a number that I will not post specifically, but let’s just say it was towards the lower end of healthy. Despite this information, the personal trainer happily agreed to set me up with a meal plan and exercise regime to achieve my weight loss goals, without any debate or suggestion that my intention to “shed the pounds” was unnecessary and actually detrimental in terms of fitness.
A few months after that preliminary session, I was admitted to hospital on an eating disorders program where I stayed for X months, gaining back all the weight I had lost on the treadmill.
The day I was healthy and had been discharged, I went back to the gym, not with the intention of losing this time, merely “toning” my new healthy body, but soon enough it became an obsession again and I was there all the time exercising until I was about to pass out. One morning I went to the gym at 6am, the moment they opened. By 9am I had been admitted to hospital again due to my eating disorder and exercise addiction, which combined had made me rather underweight and not “fit” in any sense of the word (unless your sense of the word fit is that it means “to be a weak, dizzy mess on the brink of collapse”, in which case I was REALLY fit). A mere three days before that day, I had been approached by a personal trainer who offered to work with me and help me to lose weight.
Annoyingly, this being a blog post constructed of words rather than expressions displayed on my spectacular visage, you can’t physically see me right now, but as you read that last sentence, please just picture me throwing my hands up in despair and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of that situation.
Now, I understand that personal responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions is important. After all, gyms cannot be asked to dictate the lives of their members, weigh them upon entry, demand they get off the treadmill if they didn’t finish their bran flakes that morning, and cook them a hearty balanced stew for dinner each night (although I would not be adverse to any of these ideas), but when an eating disorder really takes over someone’s mind, that person can have no control, be unable to take responsibility for their own safety, and need people to step in. In part, this is because they may not realise that they are even ill, denial and distorted perceptions being a massive issue in people with eating disorders. The other and in my opinion bigger issue that can result in a lack of control over one’s behaviour however, is the feeling of a lack of permission to look after oneself.
Every time I went to the gym I was terrified and certainly didn’t want to be there at all. I had been told multiple times by doctors, my eating disorder service, nurses in A&E, that I could have a heart attack at any moment, but not going simply wasn’t an option. My head told me I wasn’t allowed to make that decision.
If I pleaded with the eating disorder that I was scared and couldn’t go to the gym, it would scream so relentlessly that I felt I had no choice but to give in, and I would end up on that treadmill whether I wanted to be or not.
Furthermore, the fact that I was continually let into the gym despite being so underweight almost supported the voice of the eating disorder. I had doctors telling me I was physically unwell and looked awful, but when I went to the gym and started rowing on one of those damn machines that is nothing like a real boat experience whatsoever (6 years at that gym and I didn’t see a single duckling), nobody batted an eyelid, so I assumed the doctors were lying and that I must look fine. If I was clearly “so underweight”, then why on earth would a gym let me in and offer me a personal trainer to lose more flab than I had already? Surely this meant they thought I was overweight too? Not saying anything to people who are clearly unwell is one thing, but asking if they want help in making themselves even more unwell in the interest of “fitness” just to make money is a whole new kettle of fish, a very dangerous hot kettle with sharks in it who are able to withstand shockingly high temperatures.
What’s worse is that my experience is by no means unusual or a sign that I clearly had a bad gym, as it is something that happens to loads of people in loads of gyms all across the country.
Now again, I am not asking gyms to approach skinny people in the gym, catch them with a giant net and fling them violently out of the window. Such a code of practice would be futile due to the important fact I have stated in previous posts, that not everyone who is skinny has an eating disorder and not everyone with an eating disorder is skinny. Indeed, someone could be severely unwell, on the brink of death or a heart attack and look a healthy weight or overweight. What I am asking for, is personal trainers and other staff to be made more aware of people with eating disorders, and how to support or help them when they are in a destructive relationship with the gym. They need to be able to spot various symptoms or unusual behaviours, be trained to have a grasp of eating disorders and exercise addictions, or be aware of someone’s motivations in losing weight if there are signs of any underhand eating disorder suspiciousness going on.
At the very least, if they measure someone and know someone is already a healthy weight or underweight, they shouldn’t give them a weight loss meal plan or ask if they want to pay you to help them shed the non existent rolls of fat they are complaining about just to make some cash in the name of “fitness”. When someone has an eating disorder, such suggestions are more like offers to assist in suicide for the price of £20 an hour. BARGAIN.
I know that it is a massive pain to say gyms have to spend extra money on funding training, especially when it may be that such training may be irrelevant for the majority of the time when it comes to healthy members.
Nevertheless, I would still say that it is less of a pain to be aware of sufferers and deal with them whilst having slightly lower profits, than to have to deal with a law suit and a hell of a lot of guilt when someone who clearly shouldn’t be exercising dies on one of the treadmills. I may not be a personal trainer, but that certainly doesn’t sound like fitness to me.