The Gym: Health vs. Weight Loss Culture

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For a lot of people that have dealt with eating disorders, going to the gym can be complicated. Some people with eating disorders struggle with overexercising or using exercise as a purging mechanism, while other people might feel guilty for not going to the gym. Joining the YWCA in Minneapolis was an integral part of my recovery, and it was a highly positive experience, but then I moved to another part of town with no YWCA, and ever since then, I have struggled to find a gym that I like. I have tried the stripped-down, bare-bones gyms, and found them lacking in one thing I love: the pool. I don’t want to use the recreation center at school, and yet again there is no YWCA or YMCA near me, and I don’t live near my community recreation center either. What I do have where I live are lots of high-end, fancy gyms.

A couple years ago, B and I belonged to a fancy gym, but it was obscenely expensive, and parking was an issue, and we didn’t go very often, despite liking the water aerobics class, yoga class, and the exercise equipment in pristine condition. There is a branch of this same fancy gym close to where I work (which is cheaper and has ample parking), and I took the plunge and joined it last week, and my meeting with the membership consultant highlighted just how screwed up we are as a society about body image, weight, and health.

The membership consultant was a perfectly nice woman, but she assumed I wanted to join the gym so I could lose weight. According to the CDC BMI charts, I am at a perfectly normal weight for my height. I am neither overweight, nor underweight. I am right within range.

Basically, I don’t need to lose any weight.

I told the consultant I was joining the gym because I wanted to move my body, get some physical activity during the bitter Minnesota winter, and just feel good overall. I’m in it for health, not weight loss.

She then proceeded to tell me that I should get my body fat measured.

I told her I had absolutely zero interest in having my body fat measured, and she could not understand why I was not jumping at the chance to do so. Knowing my body fat percentage is not going to do anything helpful for me. She said that if I measured my body fat now, I could measure it in six months and see how much progress I had made. I reminded her I’m not interested in weight loss or other common “progress” metrics.

I am interested in something somewhat unquantifiable (by the usual metrics): feeling good.

One thing I am interested in is talking to a dietitian about my caloric needs, because I have no idea what they are, and what amount of protein, carbs, etc. I should be eating for optimal health. So, I am going to see a dietitian through the gym, and I’m curious as to whether she will be able to focus on something other than weight.

It’s disheartening to see that this is where we are, as a society. I keep thinking about how I might have felt about the membership consultant’s assumption that I wanted to lose weight if I was not fully in recovery. How would I have felt if someone had said that to me right after I got out treatment? It might’ve been an obstacle in my recovery.

Not to mention, it’s just crappy salesperson-ship!

I have to wonder if this emphasis on weight is also a way for gyms to make more money in that they can sell more services (personal training, boot camp, weight loss group, etc.) if the new member is passively shamed about their body size, whatever size that may be. I think it’s readily apparent that I am a normal-weight person, but if the membership consultant can plant the idea in my head that I need to lose weight, then maybe I will sign up for weight loss-related services which will increase gym revenue (and perhaps increase the consultant’s commission, if they work on commission).

This is all highly disappointing and somewhat depressing, but I am going to remain a member of this gym, because I like their facility, the location is convenient, and they basically have what I need. Still, their sales tactics and behavior are awful, and I wish I had a better selection of gyms around me, and most importantly, I wish our culture wasn’t so focused on weight.


Thanks – a very important piece. You are to be admired for your restraint in this matter – but then, as you note, think of the impact on someone struggling with their body image. As a recovering alcoholic, this reminds me of being lectured to this past summer about how it was anti-social of me not to have a celebratory drink at a particular event.

Thanks for your comment, Robert. And wow, that’s awful that someone claimed you were anti-social for not partaking in a celebratory drink when you are trying to maintain sobriety! Some people just don’t get it, do they?

Thanks for writing about this experience. I have wondered some of the same things about increasing revenue and commissions. I hate that membership advisors always seem to assume that we want to lose weight, decrease size, etc… They don’t seem to understand just wanting to feel good and enjoy exercising. This did not go over well for me in early recovery. It was highly triggering. Now I can just ignore it, realize that it is a business and feeding of current cultural values, and does not apply to me. It would be nice to see a change though. I will be interested to hear about how the dietician goes.

You’re welcome! It felt like something that others would be able to relate to, whether or not they had an eating disorder. I’m sorry to hear that you dealt with similar membership advisors in early recovery, and that this was detrimental to you. I’m glad you are able to ignore it now, and see it for what it is, a function of a sick society, and a way for gyms to make a bigger profit. I will definitely post about the dietitian appointment!

I have actually encountered the same with my running group – most of the women I am running with have a primary goal of losing weight. Sure, running a half marathon or marathon sounds like fun, but most want to lose the weight. I’m by far the “most overweight” of my whole group and it baffles them that I am not in on their calorie-counting or body shaming. Especially since right now I DO feel uncomfortable with my weight, but that is NOT why I run. If that was my reason for running, I wouldn’t enjoy it. I am trying to do things that make me feel good, things that serve my body well, and I trust that my body will go where it needs to go.

Do you get a discount on using the gym’s nutritionist? If not – I would recommend going elsewhere. Weight-loss oriented dietitians are often really frustrating for those of us whose primary nutrition education has come through ED treatment and whose main goal is feeling good. I learned this the hard way with the group I led the other day..ugh.

I admire you for joining a running group! I can imagine that a lot of the women in your group are there for weight loss rather than health, or even the goal of running a certain distance in a certain time. I’m happy to hear that even though you are uncomfortable with your current weight, you are seeking out an activity that helps you feel good, and you are not getting caught up in other people’s body image/weight loss stuff.

My nutritionist appointment is free. If she recommends stupid stuff like a starvation or cutting out entire food groups, I’m going to ignore her advice and go see someone at my primary care clinic. I’ll let you know how it goes!



I have seen dieticins and nutritionists over the years and they have run the gamut – from one appointment to set up a diet to ongoing nutritional therapy. The latter has made all the difference to me. I am still in recovery, and I have learned that BMI is bogus in many ways. I have also given up my scale (very hard considering I weighed multiple times not too long ago).

There are wonderful blogs out there. I have a post within a post on Heidi Schauster’s “a nourishing word” website. She is awesome and very knowledgeable about much of the issues you raise here.

I just finished your book, Purge, which I could not put down. Loved it and hope you’ll continue writing. You have great gift and are truly inspirtional.

Thanks for your reply! I don’t have a lot of experience with nutritionists (I’ve seen three, but one of them was not for anything ED-related) and one of them was terrible, but the other two were great. BMI is definitely bogus. Congratulations on giving up the scale!

I will check out Heidi Schauster’s blog; thank you for the recommendation.

I’m glad you enjoyed my book. 🙂

Take care,


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