weight, eating right and being fit are on nearly everyone's
New Year's 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.
Thompson's 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
"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
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
bachelor's degree from Clemson University and her master's 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.