What Fitness Instructors Need to Know About Mental Health and Eating Disorders

Buzz terms like self-care and self-love have taken hold in the fitness industry — at least, on a superficial level. As someone who used to gaze at #fitspo photos on Pinterest for hours to fuel my aggressive workout and nutrition routine, I’ve wondered for years about how the changing body-positive tide could coexist with the fitness industry.

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In my late teens and early twenties, I used exercise as an outlet for the pain and anxiety I experienced earlier in my life. I can see clearly now that I ended up making it worse by creating more noise with aggressive music blasting and pushing my body to limits it didn’t want to go to. I became an expert at ignoring my body’s natural response and pleas for rest. I had effectively desensitized myself to what I needed most by punishing my body for taking care of me.

Today, I use yoga and cardio as a way to truly clear my mind, moving in ways that work for my body and make me feel relaxed rather than exhausted. I work out to create space in my mind, not to fill it shame disguised as a motivational tactic that so many fitness instructors readily use.

I take yoga classes at a studio that truly values individuality, choice and the students’ agency in choosing what they want to do. Over the last few years, my workouts have transformed from rigorous and self-punishing to fluid, respectful and enjoyable. I do things that feel good in my body and feel respectful to the vessel that does so much for me. After fully embracing this idea and only attending yoga classes that adhered to my new philosophy, I was shocked at how little things had changed outside of my practice space.

On vacation recently, I went to a Vinyasa flow yoga class with my friend at a nationally-franchised studio. As someone who runs a nonprofit dedicated to helping people overcome eating disorders, I couldn’t believe the things I heard.

The club-like music reminded me of the frat parties I went to in college after throwing up everything I had to eat that day. That aside, it felt good to flow a little faster than normal, especially after traveling. The instructor started with a few words about taking care of yourself and self-love. It was a surface-level monologue, but innocuous enough.

In the middle of class, it felt like we stopped everything to do core work. Similar to when I would spend 30 minutes working on my abs and writhe in pain after straining an abdominal wall, the instructor cued crunches like a 1980s aerobics class — to the beat while counting up. I brushed it off as a difference in style, but then she started talking about self-love as it relates to eating. Her line went something like this, “Maybe self-love is eating a cupcake yesterday! Today’s self-love is burning that cupcake off and taking care of yourself! Keep pushing, I’m so proud of how hard you’re working.”

Maybe I’ve avoided putting myself in places where that language is commonplace for longer than I thought, but hearing it made me extremely uncomfortable. When I teach yoga or workout, I go out of my way to make sure it isn’t about punishing myself or the people I teach. Whether it be from eating, drinking, you name it, moving your body is not about un-living your life.

I couldn’t help but think of what those words would have done to me even five years earlier. I know for a fact that I would’ve pushed myself beyond my limits, gotten further into my head about what I had been eating on my vacation and not touched an ounce of food for the rest of the day. The bottom line is: you never know who is in your class and you never know who is struggling.

The class opened my eyes to an issue I thought would happen at some point. The self-care vernacular is chafing against one of the key tenants in the fitness industry. This industry values distrust of oneself and promotes the idea that you need to use its services as much as possible to offset doing something as natural as eating.

I kept thinking about how the world has missed something so crucial, especially as mental health has become more relevant within public discourse. During the self-love-speech-gone-awry, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “Your worth and purpose on this earth has nothing to do with what you look like!”

There is nothing wrong with working out and pushing yourself when you feel called to do so. It’s an issue when you feel the need to punish yourself as retaliation for living your life. It’s also an issue when you need someone else to tell you what’s right for your body. I had to relearn nearly everything I believed about my body and dive deep to reconnect with what it was telling me. Going easier on my system and being gentle with myself not only felt better but gave my body space to do what it is made to do — digest. I am healthier, happier and more comfortable in my skin than ever in my life, all because I decided to question what I believed.

When an instructor is a mouthpiece for an organization or industry dedicated to telling you that you need an external source to make you worthy, it comes at a high price. Whenever I see someone in my class that appears to be struggling, I go out of my way to say over and over that it makes no difference if you do the harder things or not. I always try to hold space for the highest good of everyone in the room rather than push people to do things that don’t agree with the natural composition of their bodies or trigger them into harming themselves for the sake of a workout.

I don’t blame the instructor at all, she is either unhealed or doesn’t understand the depth of the situation. Until you can respect your own body without conditions, you can’t respect others’ ability to choose what is right for themselves. So, when I heard, “you can lift your top leg and work hard, I know you can” during my side plank, I chose to stay true to what felt best for my hips. If I hadn’t done the intense healing work over the last five years, I wouldn’t have had the resolve to stick to what felt best for me.

The issue lies in the fact that people use self-care buzzwords as a way to further a self-punishing agenda. Of course, there is room for growth and self-improvement, but at the end of the day, it often promotes constant chasing and striving rather than living in the moment, enjoying who you are. A happy medium exists and, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go until the collective reaches that point.

The internet is littered with quotes, photos and memes about taking care of ourselves and our mental states. When instructors teach classes without having explored the depths of what it means to truly respect their bodies and fight against the idea that their worth is external, it can perpetuate the idea that in order for a workout to be worthwhile, you need to overly-tax your system.

If you teach any type of fitness class, remember that you never know who is in your class or who is struggling. If you take a fitness class that makes you feel uncomfortable or pushed to do something based on someone else’s agenda, remember that the problem isn’t you.

Until the fitness industry can fully embrace what it means to respect people’s space and autonomy, disordered eating issues will continue to plague nearly 30 million people in the United States alone. Until then, continue to question everything you read about what it means to be healthy and decide for yourself what that looks like. Spend time dismantling old notions of what people expect and see where you have internalized them for yourself. The times are changing. Instead of living a life that looks good, it’s time to live one that feels good.