Champion female boxer Mia St. John, German Olympic rower Bahne Rabe, and American gymnast champion Cathy Rigby. What do they all have in common besides being incredible athletes? All three of them suffered exercise and eating disorders during their careers.
Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and so I felt like it would be the ideal time to write about exercise and eating disorders. I know as members of the Urban Boxing Gym we may see exercise and eating disorders as not so prevalent. We assume the people who go to the gym are there to train, get stronger, faster, and live a healthier lifestyle. The thing is that eating disorders do not discriminate. About 8% of the U.S. population suffers from eating disorders and of that only 10% of them seek treatment.
There is a huge stigma surrounding eating disorders. To many people eating disorders are seen as a lifestyle choice, they view victims of eating disorders as self-absorbed and because eating disorders are often stigmatized it makes it more difficult for people to seek help. Instead they are struggling alone, isolated, and vulnerable. The reality of it all is that eating disorders are not easy to define and it is in fact a very real disease. Psychologists are realizing that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are far more complicated than they thought and they are not a “one size fits all” type of disease.
Often we think athletes and personal trainers could never possibly have an eating disorder, they are the fittest people we know, but they are not invincible. Athletes are competitive; they want to be the best and will go to extreme lengths to get there. The immense pressure they put on themselves to look a certain way combined with the pressure from coaches and teammates to win and excel in the sport can get to them. They will skip out on sleeping to train at the gym, they will skip meals and if they do eat something they regret they will purge it. They want to excel and they see these sacrifices as trivial if it means that they will look better, be faster, feel lighter, and perform better. Losing body fat with these extreme measures is dangerous and can actually decrease exercise performance as well as cause severe medical complications.
The repercussions of this disease very serious, they actually have a higher fatality rate than any other psychiatric disorder. So what can we as a gym do to help those who may be silently struggling with an eating disorder? Let’s make the subject of exercise and eating disorders not so taboo. Let’s be open to honest discussion; let’s refrain from making judgments and offer support instead.