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January 4, 2001

Losing weight, eating right and being fit are on nearly everyones New Years resolutions list. Finding the ultimate fitness workout with that high-energy instructor are usually considered keys to success. But is that instructor actually helping or hurting the situation?

A recently completed study by Sharon Thompson, associate professor of health promotion at Coastal Carolina University, reveals that eating disorders are not confined to those who are inactive or overweight. In her study Facing Eating Disorders in the Fitness Community, Thompson looks at the incidence of weight-related disorders and body dissatisfaction among female group fitness instructors.

The results of the study, first published in IDEA: Health & Fitness Source, have appeared in SELF magazine and have been featured in articles in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

Thompsons study, conducted with Roger Sargent, professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, focused on 368 female group fitness instructors from across the country. Although 90 percent of all respondents were underweight or average weight, nearly 43 percent said they wanted to be thinner. Twenty-one percent of the instructors admitted that they suffer from or have overcome an eating disorder.

Body image blues usually hits in January, said Thompson, who was lead investigator of the study. Many of the instructors are battling poor body image and may be passing their unhealthy thinking along to their clients.

According to Thompson, the fitness industry itself is to blame for some of the problems facing the instructors. Performing in a room lined with mirrors, the instructors feel pressured to be and look thin and are looked upon as role models. Instructors often must counsel their clients about weight loss and appearance. Thompson says that with the instructors, health should be their main issue and not appearance.

The study showed that as a group, the instructors had been teaching fitness classes for an average of 15.4 years, taught an average of 4.68 classes a week and averaged an additional 4.25 hours of exercise each week outside of their fitness classes. Most instructors (56 percent) exercised an average of six to 10 hours per week.

Our study indicates that females with previous experience of an eating disorder or a dysfunctional association with food and weight may be attracted to the fitness profession, said Thompson. Teaching fitness classes may provide a culturally appropriate means to justify increased physical activity to maintain their own weight and appearance. It is imperative that fitness leaders and those responsible for staff development integrate education regarding moderate exercise, healthy eating patterns and the warning signs of compulsive exercise behaviors and eating disorders. In order to effectively help their clients, fitness instructors need to demonstrate a positive and realistic attitude toward their own body image.

Thompson, who joined the Coastal faculty in 1993, earned her bachelors degree from Clemson University and her masters degree and Ed.D from the University of South Carolina. She is a certified health education specialist and certified personal trainer. Thompson was named the South Carolina Health Education Professional of the Year in 1997.