What is gym culture and why might it be problematic in the realm of disordered eating? An event hosted by eating disorders charity First Steps ED, in collaboration with organisation MyoMinds during Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2023, aimed to tackle this question and others to understand how the health and fitness world might influence eating disorders and recovery. The event asked various professionals to provide their insight to four key questions on this topic. The event also launched an animation ‘Excessive Exercise as part of an Eating Disorder’ with the aim to provide information regarding the links between gym culture and disordered eating.*
In this piece, EDIFY researcher Sarah Moody spoke with one of the panel members, George Mycock, about the event and how gym culture may relate to eating disorders. George Mycock is a PhD candidate at the University of Worcester, studying muscularity oriented psychosocial issues in men.
So, what is gym culture? George Mycock describes gym culture as, “the amalgamation of underlying expectations, values, assumptions, and pressures that exist within gyms and within groups of gym goers”. Gyms are complex places where many individuals find new passions, such as weightlifting, bodybuilding, cross-fit, and more. Additionally, gyms can be a place of social support, helping to achieve health- and fitness-goals. Concerns arise however, when gym culture verges towards the “unhealthy”. For example, the messaging that is portrayed on gym walls or by personal trainers, such as ‘no pain, no gain’, ‘be stronger than your excuses’, or ‘sweat is just fat crying’. Gym culture can also normalise disordered eating behaviours such as excessive exercise (e.g., exercising through injury) with some gyms now accessible 24 hours a day. Additionally, individuals may also engage in extreme dietary changes and body-based social comparisons.
How can gym culture contribute to disordered eating behaviour? Although these slogans and ideals may seem to some as harmless forms of encouragement, when given to those at risk of developing an eating disorder they could strengthen or create maladaptive beliefs around exercise. For example, reinforcing the idea that someone must ‘earn’ food through exercising, may encourage the belief that food is the enemy and excessive exercise is the answer. Further, gym culture has the potential to fuel disordered behaviours to achieve unrealistic “body ideals”, such as through dietary restriction and fasted cardio, or excessively eating and taking supplements to bulk up and gain muscle mass. When others achieve this ideal, they may receive praise in the gym as well as online, which further encourages this behaviour. Gyms may also inadvertently promote these behaviours such as by selling supplements to help individuals bulk or cut. Additionally, personal trainers often promote exercising for aesthetic purposes, such as how they can get you “Summer Ready”, reinforcing an often-unattainable body ideal.
How can personal trainers or gyms create a more positive environment and community? It’s important to note that gyms do not exist in isolation and consideration must be given to a wide range of factors in an individual’s eating and exercising behaviour. Further, those in the fitness industry should not be expected to treat eating disorders; this should be left to mental health professionals trained in evidence-based treatments. However, this doesn’t mean that gyms and trainers cannot take steps to reduce stressors for disordered eating. For example, George Mycock noted that gyms can provide sections without mirrors to reduce body checking and comparisons during sessions. Personal trainers may also focus comments on an individual’s form or skill, rather than their body. Additionally, they can avoid “debting talk” such as working out to “burn off” food and instead speak about how great they will feel, or the health benefits they will gain. Finally, offering optional questionnaires about mental health at registration, or having regular check-ins with clients, may provide them with an outlet to disclose anything that is troubling them. They can then be signposted to relevant resources (e.g., speaking to their GP or finding support via the helpfinder provided by eating disorders charity Beat: https://helpfinder.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/)
Finally, during the event, advice was given on how to avoid disordered behaviour surrounding gym culture. Suggestions included muting certain words or accounts on social media and exercising for enjoyment, for example finding a class you find fun and makes you feel good. Also, turning the attention to what exercise can do for one’s own body rather than counting reps or how much weight one can lift, which can help reduce the attention on quantity, and instead focus on quality and enjoyment. Individuals can also try to find supportive gyms and personal trainers to limit their exposure to more negative aspects of gym culture. When asking George Mycock what to look for when choosing a gym or trainer, he noted that it can be “very hard to find people/places that don't use problematic language, purely because it is just so normal in those circles.” However, individuals can check out gyms before they go to see the space they have. Those who are interested can watch a class and see what the personal trainers are like. In addition, when deciding to use a personal trainer or physiotherapist, the suggestion is to “go in with as much honesty as you can muster”, explain that the focus is on strength, performance and enjoyment, not body fat, and weight.
To conclude, gyms can seem daunting and may not be for everyone. However, exercise should be fun, and gyms can provide supportive environments to promote this. It can be easy to be drawn in by the negative influences of gym culture. Hopefully in the future there will be a shift away from this culture to an environment where everyone can exercise for their own reasons and have fun doing it. For now, individuals should remember to treat themselves with care when they exercise, remember to rest, and importantly to exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it.
* The animation will form part of a training tool for gym staff, sports professionals and PE teachers currently developed at The University of Nottingham (lead: email@example.com).
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