I suspect that one of my colleagues has an eating disorder and another suffers from exercise addiction. While I’m inclined to mind my own business, participants are starting to talk. Some of them are worried and asking me whether these instructors have a problem. Others comment on how great these instructors look and are asking me their “secret to success.” What do I do, if anything?
Difficult as it may be, as fitness professionals we have a responsibility to address eating and exercise issues. Our actions (or inactions!) affect not only the instructors involved but also the fitness team and our club members. If these instructors become ill or disabled as a result of their eating disorder or exercise addiction, the fitness team will ultimately have to fill in. Meanwhile, members are confronted with unhealthy and unrealistic role models.
If you suspect that fellow instructors have a disorder but you want to be more sure before doing anything, look for clues. Do they teach a lot of classes? Do they offer or agree to sub often? Do they exercise often in addition to teaching almost every day? Do they exercise even when injured or ill?
If so, try talking to them in private. One approach is to come from the perspective of injury prevention. Share the signs you have observed—excessive teaching, subbing and exercising—and emphasize your concern that they are at risk for injury. Another option is to discuss the impact we as instructors have on our participants. Let your colleagues know you consider them professionals and that, as such, they are sure to care about the messages they are sending participants.
Meanwhile, continue to educate your participants, especially about realistic and unrealistic expectations. But do not use names or point out anyone as an example! Instead discuss general exercise benefits beyond physical appearance. Use your leadership role and knowledge to talk about the amount of exercise that is generally recommended for health or fitness.
I, myself, was once a compulsive exerciser with an eating disorder. So I know that one of the keys to recovery is to get the person to admit to having a problem. Help your colleagues recognize behaviors that are addictive or damaging. Make it clear that eating disorders and exercise addictions also affect the fitness team and facility members. The point is to help your colleagues see that their actions affect not just themselves but others as well.
If you are uncomfortable or unsure about initiating a direct discussion with the instructors, go to your director with your concerns. Fitness professionals have a responsibility to face unhealthy behaviors. Yet, for legal reasons, we must be careful how we tackle these problems, so talk to a person above you for advice. Then act on that advice. Your actions will make life better for your fellow teachers—maybe not immediately, but ultimately. Rest assured that you are supporting your team members, the team as a whole and the participants who rely on us to help them achieve true health and fitness. You have this obligation and this ability.
Good for you for not ignoring this difficult issue. People in our profession are at high risk for eating disorders and exercise addiction. Yet we must consider and conduct ourselves as role models of healthy behavior. Allowing instructors with eating disorders and/or exercise addiction to continue being role models actually exacerbates their problem. If you are truly concerned, I recommend some intervention on behalf of both your colleagues. Not intervening sends the wrong message.
You might choose to meet privately with each colleague and explain your concerns. Keep in mind that exercise addicts and people with eating disorders are usually in denial. But even though they may not react in a positive way to intervention, calling attention to the problem is the first step toward finding a solution. You need to be more concerned with your teammates’ health than with their response to your actions.
If you are not prepared to confront the instructors directly, do not keep your worries to yourself. Talk with your program director or manager. The director may (appropriately) decide to reduce the affected instructors’ classes or pull them altogether. In our program we have taken a few instructors with similar issues off the schedule. While the instructors were not happy about this initially, they all thanked us later and said this drastic step “helped them get better.” You can remind yourself that you are doing something positive for the health of everyone involved by having these instructors removed as health and fitness role models until they get help and truly are healthy.
Regardless of whether you approach the situation yourself or through your director, the key is to make sure these instructors get help. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. In fact, the disorders will continue to worsen until someone like you cares enough to say something.