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When Good Health Goes Bad 

Jodi Rubin (photo by Keith Barraclough)According to Jodi Rubin, our industry has a problem.

A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating eating disorders, as well as an avid fitness enthusiast, Rubin, while participating in a workout at her local health club, one day came to a startling realization: she was observing an alarming, pervasive trend.

“Through my practice, I’ve worked with a number of eating-disordered clients. I’m quite familiar with the signs and symptoms,” she begins. “That said, I began to notice some members at my gym who were clearly working out excessively, and who, by all indications, appeared to be afflicted by the same condition. Some were definitely, in my opinion, anorexic.

“I began noticing, for example, people who were spending hours and hours on the treadmill, and it got me thinking, ‘What are gyms doing about this?’”

Maybe you’ve seen something similar at your own facility. It is, after all, a not-uncommon sight. Members who exercise vigorously for what seems like forever can be found in nearly every gym, in nearly every part of the world.

Soon after taking notice, Rubin began questioning her club’s staff. “I wondered about the legal and ethical obligations, so I started going up to everyone, from trainers to managers, and asked what their policy was, and how they handled these situations,” she explains. “Had they seen someone they were concerned about, and what had they done? And did they feel, I asked, as if they could say something to the person they were concerned about?

“They were, by and large, quite concerned, and expressed a desire to help. Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to respond. They told me, ‘We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. We don’t even know if it’s our business to intercede.’

“The reality,” she suggests, “is that the certification and education programs they’d been exposed to hadn’t prepared them to deal with this issue effectively. I realized then that this was a problem that needed to be addressed.”

Rubin is a former director of Day Treatment at The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, and has created a curriculum on eating disorders for the Graduate School of Social Work at New York University. As a result, she was well prepared to serve as a catalyst for change, and set about developing a course specifically for fitness professionals. Called Destructively Fit, this three-hour workshop helps attendees learn how to recognize individuals who might be in danger, and how to intervene with and assist them. 

“Call it Eating Disorders 101. We talk about who’s at risk, the physical and emotional signs, healthy exercise vs. excessive exercise, and how to initiate a conversation with a member you might be worried about. The latter is especially important since it can be difficult to open the door to a conversation. It’s a difficult talk to have.”

Those who have taken the courses, she notes, have reported that they’ve found it invaluable. One such advocate is Terrence Fister, the fitness director for the CLAY Health Club and Spa, a premier boutique facility in New York City that’s hosted Rubin’s class.

“We’ve all suspected, at one point or another, that individuals who are club members, attend our classes, or participate in our training programs may be suffering from an eating disorder,” he says. “Yet, in all of the education I’ve received, there’s never been any detailed instruction about how to recognize and cope with these individuals. Destructively Fit opens the door on a historically taboo subject and empowers us to take the appropriate steps.”

Geralyn Coopersmith, the national training director for the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, a proprietary education program for personal trainers that’s affiliated with the Equinox Fitness club chain, concurs.For fitness professionals, it’s extremely important that we understand the many faces of eating disorders. We need to be empowered to deal with them within the scope of our practice. Jodi’s work provides a comprehensive and holistic vision of how we can assist clients on their road to recovery."

Rubin has found that the course “enhances the relationships trainers form with their clients. It’s about being sensitive to their mind, body, and soul. Fitness is about helping others be healthy. It’s hard to achieve genuine health if you ignore the mental and emotional components.”

Surprisingly, participants find even their nondisordered clients benefit. “Other members notice,” Rubin points out. “They see that person spending two hours on the elliptical. And they notice if the club’s staff does or doesn’t intervene.

“I don’t want to say someone is unethical for not participating in this program or by not acknowledging what’s happening. But I do think it raises certain questions: namely, what do you—as a fitness professional, or as a fitness business—really stand for?”

In the future, Rubin hopes to work with instructors who may, themselves, be struggling with this issue. “I’ve been asked about this a number of times, and it’s clearly a real problem. I’m not sure what my approach will be, but it’s something that I’m thinking about.”

Rubin stresses the need for action by citing a shocking, but important, statistic: “Nearly 95% of college students diagnosed with an eating disorder are members of a gym.” Given this fact, it’s essential, she says, for clubs to “begin working towards creating a safe environment for those who are suffering and also for their peers.”

Rubin’s Destructively Fit course is endorsed for continuing education credits (CECs) through both the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). More information and booking details for those interested in hosting a workshop are available at Rubin’s Website,

- Patricia Glynn,

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