Stop that treadmill: is compulsive exercising on the rise?

Stop that treadmill: is compulsive exercising on the rise?

Brenda Goodman

PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES–PARTICULARLY WOmen–can be prone to eating disorders. Now, an Italian study, published in Psychopathology, suggests that almost one in five regular gym-goers may be on the road to anorexia, bulimia or an associated “borderline” condition researchers are increasingly referring to as anorexia athletica. None of this comes as a surprise to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)–a major trade organization for the fitness industry in the U.S.

“It’s one of the top three issues we get calls about in our public policy office,” says Kristen Walsh, IHRSA’s spokeswoman.

After two years of inquiries from gym owners and personal trainers, Walsh drafted guidelines to help those in the fitness industry identify and confront men and women who seem to be exercising compulsively.

“The situation is almost always the same,” says Walsh. “A 20- or 30-something woman is using the club for several hours a day and has lost so much weight that other members are beginning to express concern.” In some cases, Walsh says, the woman has lost so much body fat that her workouts are burning muscle, which gives off a distinct, foul odor.

On the other side of the equator, in Australia, some gyms have begun banning members who exercise too hard, too long, too often. Mark Stitt, a spokesman for Suncoast Fitness, says he’s turned at least 10 clients away because of unhealthy exercise patterns. One, a male sports coach, would exercise for three to four hours atone Suncoast facility and then check into a separate location in the afternoon for another marathon session.

But Walsh doesn’t advise U.S. gyms to take the same approach.

“Banning someone from a club doesn’t address the problem. If people are really addicted, they’ll just exercise outdoors or go to another facility,” she says. What’s more, Walsh adds, the Americans With Disabilities Act protects individuals with eating disorders, and keeping them out could be considered discriminatory. Instead, she encourages gyms to screen new members carefully for all health problems–those with signs of an eating disorder could then be referred for medical attention.

For gym-goers concerned that a fellow member may be in trouble, Diane Mickley, founder and director of the Wilkins Center for Eating Disorders in Greenwich, Connecticut, suggests confronting the person privately and supportively. “Tell the person you’re worried about them,” Mickley suggests, and be careful not to sound accusatory. “Use observations like, ‘you’ve lost a lot of weight’ or ‘You seem to be more concerned about calories than you should be.'”

But be prepared for a backlash, warns Mickley. “Don’t be surprised if they’re defensive or angry.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group