One afternoon, I arrived at my neighborhood boutique-spinning studio, harried and stressed, with only minutes to spare before the start of my class. When it comes to my fitness preferences, I turn my practice inward and try to tune out the world around me. As a result, I often have few interactions with my fellow riders. Today, however, I was pulled out of my bubble by the sight of a terrifyingly thin girl drenched in sweat. Clearly, she had just finished an intense spinning class. I was embarrassed by my reaction as I gawked at her body. I easily counted her ribs through her studio-branded tank top. She was even too skinny to have a thigh-gap – it was just open space surrounded by skin and bones. What shocked me most, however, was that she leaned her skeletal frame over the front desk and asked to be signed up for another one. I was horrified that with the click of a button, the clerk assigned her a bike, and off she disappeared into the darkness of the spinning room.
My mouth was agape as I questioned: How could they possibly let her take another class? Now, I know nothing of this girl, not her motivation, nor her health history, so I really don’t want to pathologize, but I must ask: in our society’s “more is more” approach to fitness, how can we help the people whose exercise habits move beyond healthy and into the danger zone?
WAIT – EXERCISE ADDICTION IS REALLY A THING?
Yup! The technical name for excessive and compulsive exercise is Anorexia Athletica. Similar to alcohol or drug addictions, the person builds up a tolerance and need more juice to fuel that same high. They may also experience withdrawal effects like anxiety or irritability if they can’t exercise. Other signals include pulling out of other normal life activities like getting together with friends or skipping meals – all in order to spend more time hitting the gym.
The danger in this disorder is that on the surface, exercise is not inherently threatening. However, the body is not made for this amount of exercise. In addition to the increased risk of experiencing a sports injury, exercise addicts can be doing serious damage to their metabolic processes, hormone levels, or internal organs. There have been reports that chest palpitations and heart failure have been associated with this disorder.
GYMS NEED TO SHAPE UP
Back at the studio, I began to wonder if these boutique fitness companies have an obligation to intervene. Turns out, it is a highly sensitive issue for their management. The financial structure of these businesses depends on people paying à la carte for classes. This means the more classes people take, the more revenue flows into the studio. I placed a call to one extremely popular spin studio and the person who answered the phone informed me there is no limit to the amount of classes a person can take in one day. I emailed several other fitness studios, and each of them declined to comment or expressed fear of being associated with this issue. They do not want this issue to contaminate their image of being tightly-knit communities focused on fitness, health and wellness.
FINDING STRENGTH FROM THE INSIDE OUT
The more I researched this issue, the more people came forward with stories of friends, roommates, or family members that suffered with this disorder. Unfortunately, as with most such issues, there is stigma around coming forward. This feeling of unacceptability furthers shame, secrecy and a whole lot of denial.
I came across a podcast called the Lively Show, in which a special guest, Lauryn Lax, discussed her 14-year eating disorder and fitness addiction. During the episode she spoke about meaningful interventions. She began by identifying that when strangers at her gym told her that she looked too skinny, she found it to be insulting and worthless. This calmed some of my own anxiety about not saying anything to the girl at my spin studio. Lax went on to say that, although she did not want to hear it at the time, she was more open to hearing from her friends and family because she knew they had her best interests at heart.
If you find yourself among one of those trusted supporters, be delicate, and expect the veil of denial to be thick. Begin by empathically identifying your love and support. Addictions can be isolating, so let them know you are going to be there unconditionally. When it feels appropriate, share some concrete examples of how you have been personally affected. If you share your fears and other observations be sure to avoid blame. Keep in mind, there is a lot going on under the surface that may need to be addressed by a professional. While medical doctors and clinicians can diagnose this addiction, anyone can be concerned over the deteriorating condition of a friend. Sometimes a little tough love goes a long way.
Armed with this information, I recognize that there is little I could have done for that girl at the spinning studio. At this point, it seems that fitness studios are unlikely to get involved, but if you share my concern about this, then reach out and ask them take notice. In the meantime, it is important to shed light on this issue and attempt to de-stigmatize it. Understanding the disorder and recognizing the warning signs make it is easier to catch and treat the problem. When I think about that girl, I hope she has a supportive person in her life that can step in and help her make a change.
If you want to learn more about this and other eating disorders, I recommend visiting Nami.org.
Photo by Lukas North