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Members with exercise and eating disorders can be male or female Watch for certain signs if you suspect one of your members has a problem Photo by Thinkstock
<p>Members with exercise and eating disorders can be male or female. Watch for certain signs if you suspect one of your members has a problem. <em>Photo by Thinkstock.</em></p>

How to Spot and Help Members with Compulsive Exercise or Eating Disorders

How can your trainers and the rest of your health club staff tell if members are taking their workouts too far or are not eating properly?

Trainers love to have clients who are dedicated to living a healthy lifestyle through exercise and proper nutrition, but how can your trainers and the rest of your health club staff tell if members are taking their workouts too far or are not eating properly?

For some people, what begins as a desire to attain a healthy goal can be­come a form of intense mental and physical punishment. They may have an obsessive interest in weight, calories consumed and excessive training, often to the point of physical injury. Restriction of food intake combined with intense physical activity can be a flashpoint for obsessive thinking about exercise and body shape. What begins as compulsive exercise may progress into a more complex eating disorder. Most people are familiar with the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, which involves purging your calories through vomiting, but purging calories also can occur through over-exercising.

Trainers and gym staff should be aware of red flags to make sure members are not putting themselves in danger. Basic warning signs are:

  • If you or your client has to cancel a training session, how does the client react to missing the workout? Is the response disappointed but reasonable, or is the client incredibly anxious, distraught and wanting to do anything to make up the appointment?
  • Does the client set unattainable goals that continue to increase with each appointment?
  • Does the member ever stop to acknowledge his or her accomplishments or is he or she always disappointed?
  • Do you see the client at the gym multiple times each day or for several hours at once?
  • Does the member have a perfectionist attitude towards his or her workouts and body?
  • Is the member fatigued or overwhelmed while working out?
  • Does the client continue to lose weight rapidly beyond what is recommended by a trainer or physician?
  • Does the client keep shifting weight-loss goals to lose more and more weight?
  • Is the client showing decreased performance due to over-training?
  • Does the member work out even when injured, sick, dizzy or in pain?

When helping clients set goals, listen to their motivation and attitudes about exercising. Take the time to find out how and why they are exercising and encourage them to connect and listen to their bodies. Be sure that the goals are set by the clients, and do not focus on weight loss as a primary goal. Goals should be realistic with a focus on health and fitness. Tailor the exercise program to account for the individual's age and previous level of activity.

Size is not a clear indicator of health or an eating disorder. People's attitudes and motivations behind their diet and exercise routine are better indicators of a problem with disordered eating or over-exercising.

So what do you do if you suspect a member has an eating disorder or is a compulsive exerciser? Eating disorders and compulsive exercise are delicate, sensitive, and complex situations, so unless you have training in how to handle these disorders, you may feel bewildered about how to help. That is why it is best to have educational brochures or posters in your facility available for both gym patrons and staff. If you want to approach a client about this issue, you should develop a relationship with them and educate yourself about the issue before you talk to them.

For tips and guidelines on how to approach someone you are concerned about, visit to download our "How to Help Someone" booklet and order compulsive exercising awareness posters for your fitness facility.


Laura Discipio is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). ANAD is a non-profit that was founded in 1976 advocating for healthy attitudes, bodies and behaviors along with the prevention and awareness of eating disorders. For more information, visit or call (630) 577-1330.

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