Are Gyms Fueling Eating Disorders?

According to the Renfrew Center's Kelly Pedrotty-Stump, the gym environment can be a breeding ground for exercise obsession

Jenna Bergen

In our sedentary society, where the vast majority of us spend our days with our butts glued to a chair and are all too happy to cut exercise short the moment it begins to feel somewhat taxing, trainers and fitness instructors couldn’t be more vital. These workout cheerleaders are there to motivate us; to inspire us to go a little farther, to work a little harder, to perfect our form and prevent injury, and to hold that plank a few seconds longer.

But, according to Kelly N. Pedrotty-Stump, an exercise coordinator at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, not everyone benefits from the gym’s pro-exercise and pro-weight-loss environment. Despite the slew of health benefits regular exercise provides, there are some people that take it too far. Over-exercising, also known as disordered exercise, is a form of an eating disorder and can lead to everything from permanent injuries like torn ligaments to cardiac arrest and death. According to Pedrotty-Stump, more people struggle with this disorder than one might think—and not all of them appear shockingly underweight.

So where do the exercise-obsessed, who range in age from pre-teen on up, tend to flock? The gym. And that’s where the cheerleader mentality can become risky.

“Gyms, fitness professionals and even other gym-goers need to become educated on the signs and symptoms of disordered exercise,” says Pedrotty-Stump. “Often times, the fitness industry unknowingly feeds into the disorder by sending the wrong message that exercise should be for weight loss instead of for health. Telling clients things like, ‘Do this and you can be in a bathing suit and love your body by summer’ or yelling out ‘Don’t stop now if you want to look good in that tank top!’ during a kickboxing class can be very dangerous if the client or three or four people in the fitness class, are struggling, or have previously struggled, with an eating disorder or disordered exercise.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is stuck in the destructive throes of a disorder or if he or she is simply dedicated to health and fitness. “There’s a fine line between normal exercise and exercise that is disordered,” says Pedrotty-Stump. “It’s a gray area because exercise in inherently good for you. It’s the only part of an eating disorder that has healthy benefits when used correctly.”

However, there are tell-tale signs to watch for: Working out despite injury or illness; exercising without properly fueling or hydrating the body; obsessing over calories burned or miles logged; only working out on machines that show calories burned; repeatedly doing the same exercise, like running or the elliptical, over and over; and training for hours a day or multiple times a day. All are strong indicators that a client may have a problem. “Being dangerously thin, missing social events or scheduling work or school around workouts is also common,” says Pedrotty-Stump. “Another important thing to watch for is when someone obsesses over his or her appearance, especially specific body parts, and says things like, ‘I hate my stomach, what can I do about my stomach?’”

Of course, many gyms and fitness professionals realize, or at least have a strong suspicion, when specific clients have an issue with food or exercise. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there to help them handle the situation. For now, even if a gym believes a client is struggling with disordered exercise, they aren’t able to bar them from working out due to legal reasons. “Gyms have a really tough position, but what they can do is train their staff and members on the difference between healthy exercise and disordered exercise,” stresses Pedrotty-Stump, who’s currently working to create guidelines for gyms and fitness professionals to help them spot and handle disordered exercise and eating disorders.

Additionally, if trainers, fitness instructors or even fellow gym-goers recognize that a client has an unhealthy relationship with exercise, it’s okay to broach the subject if you feel comfortable, says Pedrotty-Stump—just don’t comment on appearance. “Saying something like ‘You look thin,’ when you’re concerned is exactly what a person with an eating disorder wants to hear, and it may fuel their desire to lose more weight,” stresses Pedrotty-Stump. Instead, comment on the concerning behaviors, like how often he or she is working out. On the flip side, telling the same person after her or she has entered recovery, “You look healthy,” or “You look strong,” can also translate into “You look fat.” “Just leave any and all appearance comments out of it,” advises Pedrotty-Stump.

Weighing and measuring clients can also fuel disorders and cause past disorders to reappear. Instead, Pedrotty-Stump recommends trainers switch from a weight-loss or appearance goal and begin focusing on cardio or strength goals, like gradually increasing how many pushups or chinups they can do or how many more stairs they can climb before they become out of breath. “You just never know who is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered exercise, or who has struggled in the past,” cautions Pedrotty-Stump. “Instead of saying things like ‘Do this number of crunches per day and you’ll get a flat stomach,’ say things like ‘do this to feel stronger’ or ‘do this to have more energy’ or ‘do this because it makes you feel better.’”

Disordered exercisers are perfectionistic and driven by nature, and trainers and fitness instructors should do their best to educate them on the importance of taking rest days and proper nutrition. “These aren’t the types of people that should be pushed or encouraged to do more, ever. They do that themselves,” says Pedrotty-Stump. “These are the types of people that need trainers and instructors to let them know when it’s okay to stop.”

Visit or call 1-800-RENFREW for more information on disordered exercise and eating disorders.