What You Need to Know About Training Clients with Eating Disorders

With the growing awareness of eating disorders, such as anorexia, it is imperative that Personal Trainers understand there can be a strong link between many of these disorders and their exercise habits. Olenna Korczynskyj, Course Coach at Australian Institute of Fitness WA, talked about some of the issues Personal Trainers need to know.

The focus

There is often a common misconception that focusingon ‘healthyeating and exercise is always beneficial. While this mindset can be helpful at times, it is important to understand that many eating disorders themselves are in fact due to an over focusing on these areas of a person’s life, sometimes to make up for a lack of fulfilment in others.

In many cases, for eating disorders to be overcome, the focus needs to be moved away from nutrition and exercise and towards other aspects of the individual’s life that may require attention. These could include self-esteem, body image, relationships, career, or family to name a few.

Eating disorders that may benefit from this shift of focus include anorexia, bulimia and the more recently names Binge Compulsive Over-Eating Disorder (BCOED) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). The two latter eating disorders can often be identified more commonly among those suffering from obesity and also exercise addiction and overtraining. We often don’t realise that these last few are even categorised as eating disorders but they share more common ground with anorexia and bulimia that many people may realise.

Are they ready?

In many cases our response as Personal Trainers to someone who is severely overweight or presenting with an unbalanced approach to food and exercise is to encourage these individuals to adopt a ‘healthy’ eating or exercise plan. What we fail to realise is that this often fuels the problem and can, in many cases such as that of severe binge eating, actually make the individual feel worse about themselves and therefore less empowered to facilitate the changes that need to take place.

A more productive approach in these instances can be to invest more time in the emotional health of these people through regular counselling or referring them to a Dietician. While this can often be a more confrontational approach for all involved, we need to realise that any form of disordered eating occurs because an individual has some underlying problems that must be dealt with. Once these are dealt with it allows for behavioural changes, such as eating better and exercising more.

While we cannot ignore that some sort of shift needs to occur around eating and exercise behaviour for success to happen with weight loss, it is ignorant of any fitness professional to expect that this can happen for their clients without some form of emotional support.


Here are some tips for handling eating disorders of all shapes and sizes within the fitness industry:

  • Understand that eating disorders are symptoms of something else that is not working in a person’s life and are developed by the individual as a coping mechanism. If you suspect something more serious is going on with someone, you are probably right and it is always better to say and do something about it than to ignore it.
  • Develop a relationship with this person so that they trust you and be sensitive towards the fact that you do not know how they are feeling. Once this relationship has been built, it makes difficult conversations easier to have.
  • Approach the client in a setting that is private and comfortable for both of you. Then you need to simply state that you are concerned about some of their behaviours that you have noticed around food and exercise.
  • Refer them. Remember that it is not within our scope as Fitness Professionals to diagnose or offer psychological help. However, we can support this person by referring them correctly to someone who can. Work with this person to establish a balanced approach to eating and exercise that is based on enjoyment and health rather than being over focused on weight loss and appearance.
  • Avoid fitness tests that involve a focus around calories, kilograms, body fat, scales or measurements. Instead, focus on actual capabilities of the individual such as energy levels, strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility and simply how they feel. Use personal happiness as an overriding goal for these clients.

This article is from the Australian Institute of Fitness Resource Centre (www.fitness.edu.au)

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