When you see them in the gym

As a gym-goer, I see people with abs proving they work out every day. I see people who joined the gym as a New Year’s resolution. And then I see a person, almost always a woman, whose arms are merely bones with skin draped over them, whose frame is similar to a pole.

What do you do when you see someone who most likely has an eating disorder — but is still ferociously working out? You don’t want to approach them because you don’t know them, and besides, maybe this woman naturally has a very, very miniscule frame.

And then you look around the gym. Signs everywhere scream to work out more and control your food intake. There are always people stronger, skinnier than you, and they arrived at the gym before you and are still working out after you’ve taken a shower.

In other words, this is not an environment that will make someone who has an eating disorder feel more secure about themselves. Yet more than once, I’ve seen people who most likely have these disorders work out in the gym.

What is the gym’s responsibility, if it has one? Many gyms offer trainers to tell you how to work out and what to eat. Couldn’t they also have some knowledge of eating disorders?

If this isn’t possible (because the gym doesn’t have trainers or those kinds of resources aren’t available), gyms could merely advertise the National Eating Disorders Association hotline. This solution isn’t a cure-all, but if just a single person decides to call, the gym has had a positive effect.

Does the gym have a societal responsibility to help people with eating disorders? If so, what should they do?

  1. I used to work in a gym and we had just a few clients who would come in and ferociously workout who were skin and bones (and yes, they were female). We were never allowed to say anything to them. We just watched them carefully for signs of weakness while working out. We all felt horrible and wanted to help them, but as an employee you have to do what your business tells you to do. And we found that these girls were gym wanderers – meaning they would go to a gym religiously for a month or two, and then switch. I’m thinking it’s a form of protection against someone finally working up the nerve to say something. I do think there needs to be an emphasis on healthy living in gyms, and for the most part I think many gyms are heading in that direction. Maybe even giving some recognition to eating disorders – through posters, flyers, etc.

    • It’s interesting to hear from someone who worked in a gym. I would imagine the company wouldn’t want you to say anything since you could offend the client. When I go to gyms, they’re all about following your resolutions and working out, which is fine, but there also needs to be moderation. Besides people with eating disorders, there are some people at the gym who are addicted to working out.

  2. Yes, we called them “exer-rexic” people. I think it would also be a liability issue to have employees contact a person who is possibly suffering from an eating disorder. Since it is a mental illness, it really does require a great deal of education and training to help “counsel” a person to recognize and heal their disorder. I think that’s the real risk. People doing more damage to others because they are not trained to help.

    • That makes sense. Most gym employees probably aren’t psychiatrists.

  3. Ken Solomon said:

    It’s not the gym’s responsibility. Unlike a bar that is obligated to stop serving an inebriated person that can be an imminent danger to others, an eating disorder does not rise to that level of danger. Society should not delegate all personal responsibility away from individuals.

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