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Why Our Gym And Fitness Cultures Need Attitude Adjustments

I know I’m probably hyper – focused on the comments people make about food, body, and fitness because I am in the field of eating disorders and understand how certain types of seemingly benign comments can have really dangerous effects. This doesn’t change the fact however, that society is due for some education around appropriate language to use when addressing food, bodies and fitness…you never know who might be listening and how these comments might be translated.

How many times have you attended a class where orders like “alright ladies beach season is coming up, gotta look good in our bathing suits!” or “come on gals, let’s get rid of that muffin top,” are barked with the intention of motivating attendees? In gyms across America, the biggest barometers for success are marked by external physical indicators– fat burned, pounds lost and waist sizes dropped – without adequate regard to mental health or internal physical benefits.

Comments like those above can be interpreted in a number of harmful ways. If I don’t work out hard enough, does that mean I’m not going to look good in a bathing suit? If I have a “muffin top” does that mean I need to get rid of it?

I’m not saying that these types of comments are to blame for the development of eating disorders. Other major triggers – genetics, temperament, co-occurring mental health conditions AND environment – also play a role. Walter Kaye, Director, Eating Disorders Program and Professor, UCSD Department of Psychiatry, once said “genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” This means simply, one is born with genetic sensitivities that can then be aggravated by certain environmental indicators to put one “over the edge” and into a disorder.

I also want to be clear that I think (and know) many fitness instructors who do really amazing work motivating and teaching people  about why and how to move their bodies. I also know however that fitness instructors have more of an impact on their clients than they can even imagine. We are looking to them as experts in their field and if they are reinforcing negative cultural body ideals that focus solely on the external effects of exercise, many might start to believe these ideals to be true.

While I totally understand that fitness professionals are doing their jobs by trying to motivate their clients, I think the fitness community as a whole could be further educated on HOW to do so in order to minimize inadvertent body shaming and militant-style focus on obtaining the “perfect beach body.”

Here’s a great example of how to do it: About six months ago I took a step class for the first time with a fitness instructor at my local YMCA. She is full of life and energy. I began taking all of her classes, not simply because I felt invigorated and rejuvenated after the workout, but because she was so refreshingly body aware and body positive. I appreciated that after my instructor checked to make sure that everyone had eaten a nourishing breakfast pre-workout, she went on to let us know that she had had pancakes and eggs. I can imagine that for those who struggle with whether or not they “should” eat breakfast, this comment validated that it is in fact necessary to fuel our bodies appropriately in order to function optimally throughout the day.

After class was finished (much to my friend’s embarrassment), I decided I simply had to let this instructor know how valuable her choice in words would be to someone struggling with body image. I let her know that I was in the field of eating disorders and of how my experience in trying to promote body awareness and acceptance in gyms had been less than satisfying. She told me that she would speak to her bosses to discuss the possibility of setting up a professional development day for the staff at this particular Y. I was beyond thrilled.

Professionals in the fitness industry are ideally positioned to be on the first lines of defense for those struggling with an eating disorder or exercise addiction. Instead of commending someone on weight loss, first think about how that comment might be interpreted. What if that person lost the weight in an unhealthful way? What if that person is feeling miserable internally and thinks that losing more weight will help them to feel better? There are plenty of other ways that fitness instructors can compliment a client based on other benefits of exercise. They can focus on how a client’s affect has improved, whether their bodies feel re-charged or how mentally strong they’ve become.

Gyms should be a place of solace where one can feel empowered to nourish their bodies with appropriate amounts of mindful movement. I think less judgement and more encouragement and inclusion would make gyms a less intimidating environment for many, and fitness instructors can play a huge role in helping to make this shift.

In the end, exercise shouldn’t be about manipulating the way we look, but rather how we FEEL.

What is your gym environment like? Does it help you to feel empowered to experience mindful movement, or does it encourage weight loss as a sign of healthfulness?


Natalie CohenNatalie Cohen is the Senior Marketing and Community Relations Associate as well as the Social Media Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care.  She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in Orono. Her favorite part of working at Walden is being able to act as an advocate for clients suffering with mental illnesses and interacting with other eating disorder professionals in the community. In her free time, Ms. Cohen enjoys yoga, shopping and doting on her dogter Bella.

*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment.