Working in a gym and I often hear the conversations about shredding, bulking, leaning up and cutting daily. Clients and trainers talk about food, diets, calories, macros, weight and restriction constantly.
Trainers and clients celebrate dramatic weight loss without a question of how or why. High fives are given for double sessions and smash and grab training, reinforcing the idea that clients need to be leaving the gym barely able to walk after the session.
Yet on a weekly basis, I am having conversations in private with clients, trainers, and staff about their screwed up relationship with food, their bodies and themselves. This is not a mere few people struggling, this is more and more people on a weekly basis who are trying to get fit and healthy that have gone too far and is no longer healthy for their bodies or their minds.
Struggles include obsessive exercise, binging, fear of food, carbs and fat, obsessing over the scale or body fat percentage and spending hours comparing themselves to others both on social media and in real life.
These may seem like not such a big deal but these all-consuming thoughts can be absolutely debilitating to someone’s social life, ability to create healthy relationships, mental health and their belief in their own self-worth.
As someone who has been on the other side and worked as an Eating Disorder counsellor, I have spoken to hundreds of people who are struggling with this daily. These thoughts and feelings do not just go away by themselves, it can take a lifetime to build back a healthy relationship with food exercise and yourself.
Why do we as health and fitness professionals need to know about this stuff?
Clients who are struggling with disordered eating are highly likely to be accessing a gym environment. As health fitness professionals we are in a unique position where we are trusted, we are relied upon for advice and we can create a safe place for clients to ask for support.
We are likely to see our clients regularly enough to be able to notice some of these concerning behaviours and to suggest someone gets help.
It’s important for trainers to look out for and recognize the warning signs when people are starting to develop negative thinking patterns around their food and body and know what to do about it.
A reminder that someone struggling with an eating disorder does not have a “look”. What is important to realize is that someone struggling with their relationship with food or their body does not have to be underweight in fact most individuals are in the normal weight range. A sufferer can be any shape or size, male or female, young or old.
Giving nutrition guidance
Trainers without proper nutrition training should not be giving nutrition advice beyond their scope of practice.
The scope of practice does include behavioural based changes, eating more whole foods, 4-5 cups of vegetables, reducing processed and packaged food.
For the majority of our clients following these guidelines is enough to make a physical change.
But our clients want dramatic changes, they want to see abs and they want to see them now. So combined with pressure to “get results”, old fashioned information, trainers feel the pressure to encourage clients into more and more restrictive behaviours.
No one should be recommending extreme low-calorie diets, cutting whole food groups, or severely restricting without any reason.
Similarly, trainers should not be encouraging clients to do the same diet they have done because it worked for them. Just because you lost 12 kgs on Keto does not mean your clients should be doing the same.
One or two of these behaviours may not be a concern, but noticing more than three is worth exploring more with your client, or listening in to how they speak about themselves when you speak with them.
Client’s behaviours’ you might notice
Going to the gym every day, sometimes twice per day without rest days.
Pushing through classes despite injury or sickness
Solely focused on an aesthetic goal or weight goal
Reduced socializing, withdrawal and isolation
Weighing themselves daily and the day is dictated by the number on the scale
Avoiding social situations totally due to not being able to eat off the menu
Spending hours weighing food and obsessing over calories or macros
Spending a lot of time in front of the mirror analyzing body fat
A lot of selfies and photos of abs, leanness on their social media stream
Spending a lot of time on social media comparing themselves with others
Compulsive exercising-such as running in 40-degree heat or in rain or storm conditions
Cannot take a rest day even when on holiday, or have a serious life event such a funeral or wedding that they don’t attend
Constantly cutting out food groups and then more cutting and cutting – no flour, no gluten, no sugar
Abusing laxatives or diet pills
Steroid or legal steroid use
Extreme weight fluctuations or rapid loss and regain cycling
Conversations or language clients may use
The negative way they speak about themselves, or inability to see efforts as a success
Labelling food as good or bad
Feeling guilty about missing a training session because they didn’t have a chance to burn calories
Constantly talking about how much better other people’s bodies are
Talking about feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment
The subtle signs in the way they talk about themselves as not good enough or useless
When they say consistently they hate their body
Feel that whatever they do it is not good enough
What can we do if we are concerned?
Be prepared with how you will open the conversation, don’t judge the behaviours or make comments on weight or appearance. Find a quiet place to talk, the gym floor at peak hour is not ideal. Invite your client to sit down with you after a session or grab a cup of coffee together.
Have some resources and referrals ready, even if the conversation is met with a brickwall you can provide your client with information to get support when they are ready.
Three conversation starters
Start by being curious and asking open-ended questions. All it takes is asking questions without judgement and creating a safe place for a response. Even if you don’t feel you have the skills to start a conversation simply asking, “Is everything ok” and then listening can go a long way.
I’m hearing that you spend a lot of time comparing yourself to other people’s bodies, how does that make you feel when you’re spending a lot of time in that headspace?
I’m reflecting that it seems like it’s so hard for you to eat differently or eat more is that something that worries you?
How do you feel about the new changes you are making to your lifestyle, is this something that feels easy or is it stressful and taking up a lot of brain and thought space?
Wait and listen to their response.
These things will affect people differently, and for some, they won’t feel like what you’re noticing has much of an impact. However if your client says its feeling pretty stressful right now use this as an opportunity to suggest something that might feel less stressful using your professional judgement.
For others, it might be that they’re so stuck in it they don’t realize that it affects them negatively and this question gives them space to reflect on if it is a problem for them or not.
These kind of question gives your client an opportunity to reflect on how their actions can impact on their feelings, mood and daily life. Your client may say I’ve never really thought about it, or they may say it makes me feel really horrible and I hate it.
From here you might be able to provide some resources or encourage them to speak with a counsellor or Eating Disorder support services.
You are not expected to be the counsellor but by knowing what is available you can point them in the right direction to get the support they deserve.
Where to refer
Ask them to speak with their GP to link them in with their local psychologist. Ideally, a psychologist who as training in eating disorders or body image concerns.
Ask them to make an appointment with a dietician or nutritionist so that you two can work together to create a better relationship with food, a non- diet or Eating disorder trained clinician is best.
The national Eating disorders service in Australia is:
Butterfly’s National Helpline:
Call 1800 33 4673, webchat.
Open 8am – midnight AEST, seven days a week.
They can also link you in with a specialized provider in your area.
Where to from here
One of the biggest challenges for someone struggling with food or exercise is that it can take time to reach out for help. There’s a lot of fear and shame around these thoughts and behaviours.
Letting go of these behaviours can feel like a loss of control, a step backwards, and a return to what may have been a place where they felt very unhappy. As a trainer we can provide support and encouragement that seeking professional help whilst scary will be worth it in the long run.
If you notice somebody or if the somebody is yourself there is definitely help out there.
Just know that it isn’t always going to feel this way, that change is possible that you can build a healthy happy flexible relationship with food, with your body and yourself and that there is support out there.