Clients Who Exercise Too Much
Barbara A. Brehm
AT YOUR FITNESS center's weekly staff meeting, one of your staff raises concerns about a member: "She is here every day, often for four or five hours. She takes several group exercise classes, then spends time on the cardio equipment. Is this what they call an addiction to exercise? She seems pretty healthy, although I guess it's hard to tell. When is too much exercise harmful? Should someone try to talk to her, or do we have a right to interfere? She is an adult, and she's not really breaking any rules."
Most fitness centers have many stories to tell about clients (and employees!) who exercise too much. What begins as a commitment to a healthful lifestyle gradually develops into an unhealthy, and even dangerous, obsession. What can you do if you suspect one of your members is at risk?
Learn more about exercise addiction
The first step to recognizing and helping people who might be over-exercising is to learn more about exercise addiction. Many people engage in high volumes of exercise, and are not necessarily "addicted." Psychologists say that someone is addicted to exercise when they continue to exercise compulsively even though exercise is having negative effects. A good source of information on exercise addiction can be found at the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders website at www.anred.com.
Understand how much exercise is too much
Exercise becomes "too much" when it puts a person at risk for injury or other health problems, or when it leads to a decline in physical fitness. Too much exercise may also indicate the presence of a serious eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Talk to your supervisor or staff
If you are worried about a particular client, talk to your supervisor. If you are the supervisor, talk to your people. Do they see the same thing you are seeing, or are you overreacting? Does someone know something about this person that justifies the over-exercising? Maybe she is already in treatment for some other problem, and exercising is helping her get through a rough time. Has someone else already intervened and expressed concern? It's important that you are all on the same wavelength and don't interfere with each other's efforts. Decide as a group whether or not you think this client is at risk for injury.
Are there policies at your fitness center that you need to follow? For example, at a university fitness center, you may be told to call the dean of students if a student has a health problem.
Never discuss clients with other clients
When other members are concerned, acknowledge their concern but do not discuss the client in question. You might say something like, "I appreciate your concern, but I am not at liberty to discuss this situation." You might assure this person that you are doing all you can.
Express your concern in a supportive, tactful manner
If you decide to talk to your over-exercising clients, be as tactful as possible. Could you offer them a free personal training session to discuss their fitness goals and exercise program? Tell them this session comes with their membership benefits. In this private consultation, you could educate them in a professional manner about the importance of rest and recovery, and the dangers of excessive exercise. You could also express your concern about their health, and your worry that too much exercise could lead to injury or other health problems.
Keep your focus on health, not weight. If they do have an eating disorder (and don't assume that they do) low body weight is not seen as a problem, but as a good thing. Instead, mention specifics such as how they exercise every single day, or how they exercise even when they are sick or injured. Advise them to see their physician for a referral to someone who can help.
Check medical clearance forms
Clients with eating disorders may not be discriminated against, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. But they may be at risk for cardiovascular complications during exercise. When clients tell you they have an eating disorder, or they exhibit extremely low body weight, blood pressure or resting heart rate, ask them to check in with their healthcare providers. Update your medical clearance forms, just as you would for any other client at risk, such as a client who becomes pregnant. Require a physician's consent form, and check in with the physician if you are worried.
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc. www.anred.com
Griffiths, M.D., A. Szabo and A. Terry. The exercise addiction inventory: A quick and easy screening tool for health practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine39(6), June 2005.
Peri, R., aerobics director and personal trainer. Northampton Athletic Club, Northampton, Mass. Personal communication, May 31, 2005.
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