I just got back from the gym and the anorexic — well, one of them — was there again. No, I do not know for an absolute fact that she’s anorexic, but it’s really not all that hard to diagnose, especially when you’ve had some experience with the subject. This one in particular has all the telltale signs of someone with an eating disorder, whether it be anorexia, bulimia, or exercise bulimia: Sunken cheeks with simultaneous facial swelling (from purging), furry forearms (lanugo), constant presence (over many years) in particularly intense spin classes, and a bony butt that distracts me from class as it bounces up and down on the saddle. Oww.
There’s another one who looks very young and very sickly — tall and gangly, on the elliptical trainer for easily an-hour-and-a-half at a time. She’s got terrible form but psycho stamina, and ribs and pelvic bones that protrude sharply through her skin as she stands naked before the locker room mirror, doing her makeup and hair before putting on a stitch of clothing. The other women always do that slick you-can’t-tell-I’m-staring-but-I’m-staring thing, like many people do when they spot a celebrity, and we all hold our breaths until she’s slipped herself back into her baggy sweater and jeans and left the premises. There are plenty of others, too — older women, in their 50s and 60s even, with Holocaust bodies and sunken eyes, going to Zumba and Nia and body-sculpting classes, working with personal trainers, and walking on treadmills for endless stretches like the fragile fitness zombies that they are.
Sometimes I want to hug them. Sometimes I want to yell, “Please stop killing yourselves!” And I’ve been wondering, for a really long time now: What do the gyms have to say about all this?
“People come in all shapes and sizes,” one manager of a major New York City fitness club told me this week. She was expressing exasperation over club members (like me!) who approach her, indignantly, asking why “that anorexic” is allowed to work out at the gym when she could be endangering her health. “People don’t know why somebody’s skinny,” the manager continued. “And, nine times out of ten, the person who is indignant is wrong. We have people who are ill, people with all sorts of issues. I avoid the subject all together. It’s nobody’s business.”
But isn’t it? In 2009, the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported that a young woman living outside of London threatened to sue her gym for allowing her to join when she was obviously anorexic and not in her right mind; and this was just weeks after her previous gym had revoked her membership because she had become too thin. (Can you even imagine a stateside gym — or a New York City gym, anyway — showing such concern?)
Calls I placed this week to two top fitness clubs (Equinox and Reebok Sports Club) went unreturned; I’d left voicemails explaining that I wanted to know if they had any official policies about how to deal with eating disordered clients.
But I did get a response from the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers. “We don’t have any sort of official policy on this,” said Erica Schietinger, their Vice President of Corporate Communications. “But if we ever see anyone at the point where they could hurt themselves, we would intervene.” She recalled an incident in which a trainer sensed a client was working out too hard, took her blood pressure, and urged her to see her doctor immediately; the client wound up needing a triple bypass. “We try to evaluate people before we even start training them,” she added, stressing that the trainers do thorough fitness evaluations (blood pressure checks, weigh-ins and medical histories) for every new member, “so you could really flag someone with an issue.” But simply calling someone out for being emaciated and constantly on the treadmill, she admitted, would be very tricky business.
So what can fitness centers do? I called The Renfrew Center, a renowned residential eating-disorder clinic with several U.S. locations, and spoke to registered dietician — and former fitness club employee — Ryann Smith for some expert advice.
“It’s extremely important for the trainers of the club to be informed and to not take advantage of these clients,” she said, adding, “Awareness is the biggest thing.” One way for a trainer to respond to a “red flag” member, Smith noted, would be to offer a free training session “to show what a healthy routine looks like.” She also suggested that gyms make eating-disorder informational pamphlets available in locker rooms, do seminars on nutrition tips to get people talking, or do a special awareness event for National Eating Disorder Month (which was in February). “People think it’s a secret,” she said. “A pamphlet [or event] would bring it to light.”
One Equinox trainer I spoke with had her own way of dealing with the issue: “I try to just say, ‘Hello,’ and ‘Need help with anything?’ to make a connection, because [people with eating disorders] tend to isolate,” she said, adding that one woman recently opened up to her about her issues as a result. The trainer — who said she asked the gym’s management if she was allowed to approach people directly when they were obviously frail or overexercising, and was told that she could not — added that she’s had loved ones who have battled eating disorders. “Most trainers turn a blind eye and try to avoid them,” she said, “But I can’t.”
We couldn’t agree more. What do you think?