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

The concept of “gym culture” has become more widespread in recent years, fueled at least in part by the proliferation of “fitspo” accounts on social media. Gym culture is often framed as motivating or community-building, and sometimes it can be—but in reality, many gym culture norms we see today are actually driving disordered exercise and eating.

Let’s unpack what “gym culture” is, when it becomes harmful, and what empowering alternatives might look like.

Understanding gym culture—and its risks

So what exactly is gym culture? According to Equip Registered Dietitian Rui Tanimura MS, RD, CYT, “gym culture is a community of people who have an interest in moving and changing their bodies. One of the core reasons why gym culture can be toxic is that it often associates someone’s body and fitness level to their worth.”

Some of the norms, behaviors, and ideologies that often surround gym culture include:

  • Constantly pushing yourself to improve
  • Tracking workouts, weight loss, calories, and other metrics
  • Adopting a “no pain, no gain” mindset, which might mean doing things like working out through injuries
  • Maintaining a strict diet, or other forms of restrictive eating
  • Equating health with a certain lean, muscular body type
  • Forming cliques based on how you look or how strong you are

To Kim Packebush, User Experience Researcher at Equip, "gym culture" evokes 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.”

The harmful aspects of gym culture

As Packebush alludes to, the unspoken rules of gym environments—which are often extreme, black-and-white, and inflexible—can be problematic. Indeed, the attitudes and behaviors promoted in gym culture can have serious negative consequences on your mental and physical health including:

  • Intense anxiety or obsession surrounding fitness
  • Disordered eating habits that cause nutritional imbalances (for example, overconsumption of protein-rich foods)
  • Neglecting other areas of life, like relationships, work, and rest time
  • Body dissatisfaction and body image issues stemming from constant comparison and unrealistic standards
  • Higher risk of developing an eating disorder

One of the most significant ways in which gym culture harms physical and mental health is through the culture of comparison. According to Kate Georgiadis, a certified personal trainer, “people feel pressure to measure themselves against others and strive to attain an unrealistic standard of beauty,” she says. She also points out that gym culture tends to promote the misleading myth that every person can attain the same body type by following the same workout regiment and eating plan—a myth that feeds into the culture of comparison and leads people to feel shame and distress when they “fail.”

Packebush experienced this during her own time entrenched in gym culture, reflecting, “I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that my body was never the thing that needed to change.”

The relationship between disordered eating and gym culture

There’s a well-researched connection between gym culture and disordered eating. According to one 2015 study, 22% of male and 59% of female fitness instructors were classified as having disordered eating. In 2018, Bodywhys, an eating disorder association in Ireland, reported that a rise in eating disorders amongst men was 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.”

If you’ve ever heard slogans like “great bodies are built in the kitchen" or “fitness is 20% exercise and 80% nutrition," you probably have a sense of why gym culture and diet culture so often go hand in hand. On its surface, gym culture may be about getting “strong” or achieving certain fitness goals, but underneath, gym culture is usually rooted in a desire to be thin or “lean”, and so dieting is an almost inescapable counterpart. Dieting, in turn, can be a very slippery slope into disordered eating because diets are by their very nature a form of restrictive eating, which is also the root of most eating disorders.

There’s also the growing issue of misinformation about food and nutrition. “On social media, people trust fitness influencers with their nutrition as if they’re a registered dietitian without knowing their background,” McIntyre says. Many fitness influencers will share meal plans and nutrition tips with their followers, and these plans, in addition to not being informed by a background in nutrition and dietetics, often make sweeping generalizations, and can encourage people to go against their own body’s signals and needs (the opposite of intuitive eating.) “Nutrition is an individualized approach, not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Tanimura adds.

Real stories: how toxic gym culture affected these athletes Real-Life Stories and Testimonials

If you feel like the culture in your gym or fitness studio has negatively influenced your eating or exercise habits, you’re not alone. Here are some firsthand experiences from people who have struggled with the effect gym culture had on their lives.

Ashliegh McIntyre’s story

As a competitive athlete in high school and college, Equip Practice Manager Ashliegh McIntyre 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 days 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 commitment 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.” Later on, McIntyre was diagnosed with an eating disorder and during her recovery had to work to unlearn many of the gym culture norms that she’d internalized.

Rui Tanimura’s story

Rui Tanimura, a registered dietitian at Equip, was a powerlifter in college. During that time, she says social media served as an important tool for improving her form, but the prevalence of ultra thin, ultra muscular influencers reinforced 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.”

How to find a healthy relationship with fitness

Gym culture probably isn’t going anywhere, but with the right information, you can avoid its most toxic elements and find a way to incorporate fitness into your life in a way that’s truly healthy. Here are some tips for anyone who’s looking for alternatives to traditional gym culture, or is trying to re-introduce movement after struggling with an eating disorder.

1. Look for a focus on holistic well-being

As a fitness professional who has experienced the dark side of gym culture firsthand, 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.” Finding a trainer, instructor, or even an influencer who shares these same values can go a long way toward helping you build a healthier relationship with exercise.

2. Look for a gym that values body diversity over “weight loss”

If you or a loved one is going to re-enter a gym or workout space after recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating, 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.”

3. Find a type of workout that works for you

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, noting that this can be especially helpful for those in eating disorder recovery. “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.”

Of course, yoga isn’t the only type of exercise that can be nourishing and health-promoting to people in recovery. It’s less about the type of exercise, and more about the mindset behind it and how it makes you feel. Experiment with different formats and types of movement to find what is best for you.

4. Take an honest look at your fitness circle, on and offline

“Surround yourself with people who care more about how you are truly doing rather than the size or shape of your body, how much you can lift, or how fast you can run,” McIntyre advises. “Be wary of fitness influencers who shame other body types, idealize a specific one, and who don’t share their education and credentials readily. And don’t be afraid to use the block button and eliminate the possibility of specific accounts appearing in your social media feeds.”

How fitness professionals can help improve gym culture

For those who work in the fitness industry, there are many ways you can tailor gym environments and social media presences to avoid promoting disordered behaviors and mentalities. Here are some examples of steps you can take to build a better future for gym culture:

  • Educate staff about eating disorders and what to do if they suspect a client is at risk
  • Refrain from making nutritional suggestions, and have credentialed resources on hand for clients requesting nutritional advice
  • Shift the focus from appearances and weight loss to overall well-being and the benefits of movement
  • Feature body diversity in your advertising, staffing, and social media presence
  • Foster an environment that encourages rest, modifications, and safety rather than a “no pain no gain” mentality
  • Offer workshops dedicated to providing body image and mental health tools

What to remember about gym culture and your health

Ultimately, the motivation behind your workout can tell you everything you need to know about whether you’ve fallen into a toxic gym culture mentality. Is your workout centered around true health, inside and out—or is it about looking a certain way or burning a certain number of calories? If it’s the latter, it’s likely time to take a step back and reevaluate the role exercise plays in your life. Similarly, if your eating behaviors are tied up with your workouts (i.e., you feel the need to exercise to “make up for” something you ate, or have adopted a new diet regimen at the advice of a trainer), it’s also a red flag.

Remember, movement should feel like a nourishing and energizing choice, not a punishing and exhausting requirement, and this can be especially important to keep in mind for those in recovery from an eating disorder.

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. McIntyre recommends learning the warning signs of eating disorders and seeking out the advice of a specialist when necessary.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is gym culture and how can it influence eating disorders?

Gym culture is a set of behaviors, ideologies, and norms that shape gyms and other fitness spaces. Gym culture often promotes excessive and ultimately unhealthy habits and attitudes, like pushing yourself past your body’s limits, equating health with weight loss, restricting your diet, or exercising to “make up” for meals. Many of these behaviors have the potential to lead to an eating disorder.

2. How does social media impact gym culture and related eating disorders?

Social media is one of the main ways “gym culture” is defined and spread in our society. Some examples of gym culture on social media are before-and-after photos, “what I eat in a day” videos, or unlicensed nutritional advice. These types of posts can normalize disordered behaviors, spread misinformation, and promote unattainable appearance ideals, all of which can be dangerous for followers who are susceptible to eating disorders.

3. In what ways can gym trainers and environments contribute to disordered eating?

Some gym trainers and environments are harmful in the way they praise weight loss and instruct their clients to restrict their diets. Nutrition is highly individualized, and one-size-fits-all diets that often involve very strict rules can quickly avalanche into disordered eating behaviors. Plus, they send the harmful message that you have to look a certain way in order to be healthy.

4. What are some signs that gym culture is affecting someone's mental health?

There are many ways to determine if gym culture is affecting mental health or leading to an eating disorder. Some common signs include mood changes, working out very frequently or with a rigid schedule, expressing shame about their body, and anxiety or inflexibility around food.

Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
Clinically reviewed by:
Erin Reeves, RD
Director of Nutrition at Equip
Our Editorial Policy
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