On November 22 I will be hosting NIED's 55th symposium in Hamilton, Ontario. I am looking forward to taking the stage with a special guest and drawing some attention to another topic that relates to Mental Health. This symposium will be discussing Eating Disorders and Athletics: Navigating the world of exercise in a weight-obsessed world. So, I have my work cut out for me ;) I decided to write this post to attempt to give you a sneak peek into some of the topics we will discuss.
When you step foot into most gyms, it is overwhelmingly clear that the message is "work hard, push yourself, lose weight, and burn calories." Now, I am very aware that the brain of someone that does not have an Eating Disorder will thrive off of this; they will be motivated and they will take that "advice" with a grain of salt. Someone who is in a place where they have compulsions to exercise beyond the point of safety, who may have self esteem that is completely wrapped around what size they are, and who is unable to see that their bodies will be hurt by the exercise could be entering a danger zone.
In the past there were particular fields of athletes that were more at risk of developing very unhealthy habits around exercise and potentially life-threatening conditions such as Eating Disorders. These were the sports like gymnastics, ballet dancers, swimmers, rowers, etc. We know that in these particular sports (and other similar types of sports), when you are playing at a very high level, you are generally training for a significant number of hours per week. They are individual sports, so the pressure is high, and they all equate a certain physique with a higher success rate.
What we now know is the incidence of disordered eating and mental health complications in athletes has reached more "mainstream" sports. We now have research to show that we are seeing Eating Disorder behaviour in sports like soccer, weight lifting, basketball, and what is considered "recreational exercisers." Part of what I will be discussing on Tuesday is the challenges and limits that the term Female Athlete Triad has. The Female Athlete Triad was supposed to be known by Physicians as a way to measure whether someone was in a dangerous place with their health. If someone was presenting with the triad (low body weight, disruption in menstrual cycle, and low bone density) it was supposed to be a red flag to look further. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Some include: we no longer see that this is an issue that only impacts women, we are seeing that there are no longer only 3 main challenges that Athletes may face, and that these very same medical and psychological issues are now being seen in individuals who would not consider themselves athletes. Only focussing on 3 main targets has made it difficult for us to recognize the other warning signs in athletes. It has also created somewhat of a guideline for other sufferers that as long as none of those targets are present for them, they must be okay. In the symposium on Tuesday, I will expand on why the limits of the Female Athlete Triad has brought a new way of screening for athletes which is called RED-S.
We all know that mental health comes with a certain amount of shame and stigma attached to it. Mental Illness can thrive off of secrecy; exercise and athletics can be another way that the Eating Disorder can be enabled, supported, and hidden. I have worked with many athletes throughout my career. I have watched them battle the "rules" and "expectations" that both their sport and their Eating Disorders put on them. I have been lucky enough to witness fitness professionals, soccer players, weight lifters, dancers, and "recreational exercisers" figure out their relationship with exercise and beat their eating disorders. This was not a straight forward process, as we know it never is. It required a lot of work to try and navigate this world where something that can seem so simple and straightforward to some can be very complicated to the disordered and sick brain.
We are working very hard in the field of eating disorders to bring awareness to ALL types of Eating Disorders. I still think that when the average person thinks of what an Eating Disorder is they think of Anorexia and maybe Bulimia. I personally think that many people may associate Anorexia with athletes. They see the type ‘A’ perfectionist, the underweight gymnast and figure skater. These are the people we see in the media talking about their experiences. What I am finding, however, is that with athletes more times than not I am helping them to recover from the hell that is Binge Eating Disorder. The dieting, over-exercise, tracking of macros, and focus on strict changes in their body composition creates a cycle of individuals not getting enough nutrition, creating an imbalance, and ultimately ending in psychological, physical, and behavioural madness.
We all know that the media has an impact on our worth as individuals. As much as I would like to say that we are past this in our world today, we are most definitely not. I am not sure if this is a new phenomenon or just new to me, but the resurgence of Instagram and Facebook accounts that document their life in the form of their meals and workouts definitely is NOT helping individuals learn what balance is. What you see on these feeds is a snippet—a snapshot—of their lives. The "perfect" fitspiration that you are seeing on your Instagram feed may not be living that exactly perfect life that you see documented through bowls of oatmeal and their latest "progress" shot. They are getting you to "follow" them the same way that advertising companies get you, by getting you to "buy" into what they are selling. These media platforms are all about selling yourself. The danger here is that they are available at the touch of a button to absolutely anyone who is old enough to use a phone (for the record, my 20-month-old can navigate Instagram no problem).
I see this as quite a significant challenge in the work I do. I spend hours trying to help individuals to see that they need to feed their bodies adequate amount of foods; they need to try and exercise just for fun, not for results, not to hurt themselves, or to burn calories, or deserve eating. When you look online and find it hard to find individuals who look anything like you, it is creating a culture of shame, a culture that enables the thinking that drives disordered eating and psychological distress.
Whether you are a battling your own illness or reading this for pleasure I encourage you to look at your own relationship with exercise right now. This blog post was very much meant to be an introduction to a much longer conversation. I hope to expand on all of these topics on Tuesday and hope you can join me.