Over her 14 years as a personal trainer, Jen Dugard has seen it all.
From people hoping to lose weight, to clients wanting to gain muscle — or those just looking to maintain it all.
But according to Ms Dugard, there’s another element to fitness that is not often discussed.
“People overtraining? I’d say a lot,” she told the ABC.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there that think that what they’re doing is healthy and I’ve definitely come across people who feel bad if they don’t work out or they’re counting their calories.
“They’re clearly overtraining, but they can’t see it themselves.”
It is an area of growing concern for health professionals, with overtraining in turn fuelling a more serious issue: eating disorders.
Yet, it is an area fitness professionals are not routinely trained to deal with.
It is why experts from the Inside Out Institute for Eating Disorders is teaming up with the fitness industry to help trainers identify people who might be secretly struggling with an eating disorder.
From Wednesday, the 18,000 registered personal trainers and fitness instructors across Australia will be given guidance on identifying people who might be over-exercising, exercising when injured or cutting out multiple food groups.
Gyms will also be encouraged to change their language and not use body-shaming terms such as “fat”, “fugly” or “skinny” and instead focusing on building health, wellbeing and strength through healthy exercise.
Sarah Maguire, director of Inside Out, said both men and women with eating disorders struggled with over-exercising — a cycle they needed to break in order to recover.
“For many people, exercise is actually of greater concern than the food,” Dr Maguire said.
Types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa: Restrictive energy intake leading to being unable to maintain a normal weight, with an intense fear of gaining weight
- Bulimia nervosa: Repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours, with an emphasis on body shape or weight
- Binge eating disorder: Eating large amounts of food over very short periods of time while feeling a loss of control
- Muscle dysmorphia: Engaging in excessive exercise and over training to gain a certain type of muscularity
- Disordered eating: Behaviours such as food restriction, skipping meals and binge eating that can be indicators of a disorder developing.
She said anything marked by “obsession and compulsion” with exercise could rapidly become unhealthy.
“Once it becomes ritualised, compulsive or obsessive, or once you can’t take days off and if you feel guilt and shame when you don’t do it, then we are moving into the territory of eating disorders forming part of a mental illness.”
‘Living off caffeine’
According to the Butterfly Foundation — a group supporting those with eating disorders and negative body image issues — as many as 1.2 million Australians live with an eating disorder.
Cricketer Sarah Coyte was one of them. It forced her to give up the sport she loved.
“It got pretty bad,” she said.
“We did a lot of fitness testing and I wasn’t comfortable with it a lot of the time.
“It got to a point where I was basically living off caffeine because I couldn’t stomach food, I didn’t like how I felt after I would eat and I needed to perform so for me the lighter I felt, the better I would feel and perform.
“It just became an obsession.”
Ms Coyte, now 28, lived with the disorder for eight years.
With support and hard work, she has since recovered and is now back playing professional cricket.
She believed the problem was “pretty widespread” and a lot of people involved in professional sport — as well as normal training — did a “pretty good job hiding it”.
Ms Coyte said the recommendations for personal trainers could help save lives.
Health system ‘failing’ patients with eating disorders
Raia Darin-Cooper fought anorexia for 14 years before she ended her own life at just 25 years old. Her family wants a shake-up of the health system.
Fitness Australia chief executive Barrie Elvish said he hoped the guidelines would be adopted across the fitness industry.
“We want our registered exercise professionals to be working within their scope of practice, including knowing when and where to refer a client for medical review,” he said.
Dr Maguire said Inside Out wanted to see gyms include screening for eating disorders as part of the regular medical screening at all gyms.
“Obviously, when it is raised it needs to be done sensitively, you need to have an awareness of how the illness can affect the individual and it needs to be done with skill, hence the need for guidelines,” she said.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing an eating disorder we encourage you to reach out for support.
You can call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673.