How Gym Culture Fuels Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating
A man bends down to pick up a barbell at the gym

Equip Discharge Coordinator Ashliegh McIntyre didn’t even know she had an eating disorder. As a competitive athlete in high school and college, she was encouraged to participate in the very habits that she would later learn were red flags. “I was surrounded by gym culture, so it seemed normal to me,” she says. “I thought things like extra workouts outside of practice, food tracking, and no rest were normal—at times, these were even viewed by my coaches as dedication.”

McIntyre says she began falsely equating the pursuit of a “smaller and more muscular body” with an ambition for better health and performance. But her dedication to the gym left her “constantly injured, sick, anxious, and depressed,” and ultimately led to her temporarily abandoning sports altogether. “It was only at that point that I truly realized that it wasn’t normal and I was actually struggling.”

While working out has undeniable benefits for mental and physical health—and exercise is touted as a universal good—there is often an undeniable overlap between gym culture and the ethos of disordered eating. According to one 2015 study, a total of 22% of the male and 59% of the female fitness instructors who participated in a survey were classified as having disordered eating. In 2018, Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, reported that a rise in the number of men seeking support for eating disorders has been linked to a growing "gym and fitness culture.” And a 2020 study revealed that fitness center employees “frequently encounter individuals who they suspect of exercising excessively, or suffering from an eating disorder.”

While the cultural awareness of eating disorders may be improving, many are still unaware of the potential for disordered behaviors to masquerade as a “healthy” fitness habit. But you don’t need to look far for examples: consider how “fitspo” (i.e. internet content intended to “inspire” healthy choices) surreptitiously replaced “thinspo” (explicit promotion of disordered eating) but retained many of the same problematic principles disguised as “wellness.” And there’s the fact that compulsive or rigid exercise are often lauded as “dedication” or “discipline,” a phenomenon that seems to have worsened during the at-home fitness boom of the pandemic.

The more-is-better perspective on fitness isn’t healthy or helpful, but it’s ubiquitous both IRL and on social media. And for those vulnerable to or in recovery from eating disorders, this can be a problem.

What is “gym culture”?

“Gym culture is a community of people who have an interest in moving and changing their bodies,” says Equip Registered Dietitian Rui Tanimura MS, RD, CYT. “If we look back, toxicity in gym culture has always existed. However, with the rise of social media, and the use of ‘liking,’ there is more opportunity to associate someone’s body and fitness level to their worth.”

As a former collegiate powerlifter, Tanimura says social media has served as an important tool for improving her form, but the prevalence of ultra thin, ultra muscular influencers reinforces the false notion that “fitness” has a single, specific physical look. “Billions of people have access to the toxic world of comparison, judgment, and disordered relationships with movement,” she says. “I quickly saw how far away this culture was from being weight neutral and body inclusive, which is very dangerous for those with an eating disorder.” (It’s also worth noting that these gym culture values can be harmful to those without eating disorders, by contributing to unrealistic body standards and poor body image.)

To Equip User Experience Researcher Kim Packebush, "gym culture" conjures up the belief that movement only "counts" if it’s done at the highest intensity and made visible to an audience for approval. “It's the idea that if you didn't track it or take a picture, it didn't count,” she says. “Gym culture sends so many harmful messages: it's the dogma of #norestdays and normalizing daily trips to the gym with pre- and post-workout shakes. It's the sense that the only thing keeping someone from going to the gym is a lack of motivation—completely ignoring factors like money, transportation, sleep, stress, etc.”

Another problem with this proliferation of gym culture through the ever-growing channels of social media is the potential for misinformation to spread like wildfire. “As social media has grown, it’s also led to people who are less qualified giving nutritional and fitness advice—people trust them with their nutrition as if they’re a registered dietitian without knowing their background,” McIntyre says.

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What are the most problematic parts of gym culture?

Certified personal trainer Kate Georgiadis points to the culture of comparison as one of the most harmful aspects of gym culture. “People feel pressure to measure themselves against others and strive to attain an unrealistic standard of beauty,” she says.

This culture of comparison shows up in a million different ways. For one, Georgiadis says, there’s the misleading myth that every person can attain the same body type by following the same workout regimen and eating plan. “It's vital to remember that people of different body types have different needs, and it's not healthy to compare your body to others,” she says.

On platforms like Instagram and TikTok, there’s also a flood of before/after photos and “what I eat in a day” influencer videos, both of which fuel comparison and further the false narratives around fitness.

“Before and after photos end up perpetuating this idea that if you’re in a larger body, it’s shameful and negative, and if you’re in a smaller, more muscular body it’ll bring happiness and health,” McIntyre says. “It equates body size and shape to health—which is false—and hides the possible consequences of entering into some of these diets and gym routines, like developing an eating disorder.”

Tanimura calls out “what I eat in a day” videos as particularly problematic. “Those ‘full days of eating’ videos are filled with comments like ‘wow, you have such great control with your appetite! You eat so cleanly! You must be so fit because of the way you eat!’” she says. “Again, these videos and social media tactics toe a fine line between an innocent vlog and a video that could trigger viewers to develop disordered eating behaviors.”

As an RD, she also notices that these videos make sweeping, general statements and recommendations about food and diet, which is simply not how nutrition works: “Nutrition is an individualized approach, not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Unchecked gym culture in IRL gyms and fitness centers also runs the risk of promoting troubling thought patterns and behaviors. “When you enter a large gym, you may notice that there are almost cliques forming based on how you look, how strong you are, or how hard you’re working to change your body,” Tanimura says. “There is a very fine line between wanting to change your body for overall health reasons and developing negative body image distress and disordered eating. There is also this idea that if you are in a larger body in the gym, you may receive high praise because ‘you are probably here to lose weight.’ Why can’t people go to the gym just to feel good without wanting to lose weight?”

How those in eating disorder recovery can avoid the dark side of gym culture

Despite the constant cultural commentary promoting exercise, the truth is that physical activity isn’t appropriate or safe at all stages of eating disorder recovery. But for those who have been medically cleared for movement, it can still feel confusing to navigate the fitness space while still supporting recovery.

If you or a loved one is going to re-enter a physical gym or workout space, it’s important to take stock of the environment and be honest with yourself about risks. “If you're looking for a gym, class, whatever, pay attention to the people who frequent it, as this will speak volumes about the owner's approach to movement and food,” Packebush says. “Does that gym or space ever post before and after pictures of their clients? Do they provide nutritional advice? Do they care more about filling their classes than ensuring their clients are well-rested, fed, and in the right mindset? Find a gym with people of all body types, not just someone's idea of an ‘after’ or a before on their way to an after.”

For some people, switching up the fitness modality they focus on may also help shift their mindset away from potential triggers. “As a certified yoga teacher and a RD, one of my greatest passions is finding yoga studios that have weight-neutral, trauma-informed practices,” Tanimura says. “Eating disorders are psychological conditions that can create a separation between mind and body. Yoga can help people feel safe and grounded enough to reveal their innermost needs. Yoga can also teach us to surrender instead of giving into anxiety and fear-ridden thoughts.”

As a fitness professional who has experienced the dark side of gym culture first-hand, Georgiadis encourages anyone seeking out fitness guidance to find a coach invested in their actual well-being, not in fitting certain body ideals at any cost. “I believe that true health comes from being fully and authentically yourself,” she says. “Developing a positive relationship with your body and a deeper understanding of yourself can help you feel more confident and present in all areas of your life, including your relationships and work.”

For those in need of extra support or for anyone concerned about a loved one who may be falling prey to gym culture, McIntyre recommends learning the warning signs of eating disorders and seeking out specialists when necessary. “Have a plan in place so that if you begin to struggle with eating disorder thoughts, you know what to do next, and tell your support system what the signs are of you struggling,” she says. “For support networks, I think it’s helpful to keep an eye out for changes in mood, multiple workouts per day, shame around their body, and whether food creates anxiety.”

Regardless of whether it happens in-person or online, experts stress that it’s imperative for those re-entering the fitness world to seek out competent, skilled trainers and influencers who promote body acceptance and who have extensive experience dealing with eating disorders. “Surround yourself with people who care more about how you are truly doing than the size or shape of your body, how much you can lift, or how fast you can run,” McIntyre says. “Be wary of fitness influencers who shame other body types, idealize a specific one, and who don’t share their education and credentials readily—don’t be afraid to use the block button and eliminate the possibility of specific accounts appearing in your social media feeds.”

And above all, it’s important to be honest about the motivation behind the workout, and make sure that it's centered around true health, inside and out, rather than looking a certain way. “I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that my body was never the thing that needed to change,” Packebush says. “Going to the gym, in and of itself, is okay. Finding joy in movement is okay. To conform to gym culture requires losing parts of yourself that take a long time to find.”

If you're worried that your or a loved one's relationship to the gym signals a bigger issue, like an eating disorder, it's important to get help. You can schedule a consultation to talk to our team.

Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
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