The fitness world tackles eating disorders

What happens when a gym-goer or yoga student is struggling with a serious disorder? Two women are now training fitness and yoga instructors to help.
Chelsea Roff
Chelsea Roff poses in front of a “You are beautiful” mural. (Photo Credit: Sarit Z. Rogers, Sarit Photography)


As a go-to trainer, Kym Perfetto has been in many situations where she thought a client may need help. “It’s happened in every place I’ve taught, every studio,” she says. “Luckily, I haven’t been faced with it recently.”

Perfetto is pointing out the unhealthy side of hitting the gym: While fitness facilities are get-healthy hotspots, they can also attract people who are struggling with serious disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, and excessive exercise (sometimes classified as a type of bulimia if individuals are using workouts to purge).

“There’s this push-yourself-harder mindset, which is great,” explains Jodi Rubin, a psychotherapist and social worker who specializes in eating disorders. “But sometimes the intensity is coming from a really destructive place. That’s the difference.”

Now, Rubin, and Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Chelsea Roff, have created training programs for the fitness and yoga industry. They’re both giving insights and tools to instructors who want to better recognize the signs of an illness and sensitively help their clients.

Jodi Rubin
Jodi Rubin teaches fitness professionals how to  identify and help clients with eating disorders.

When Gym-goers are Destructively Fit

Rubin (who’s also a New York University professor) noticed the connection while seeing patients and frequenting fitness facilities. “I thought ‘What are people doing about this?” she said. “There was a common sentiment among fitness professionals: they really wanted to help people, but they didn’t know what the legal and ethical guidelines were and also didn’t have the tools.”

So she designed Destructively Fit, a course that teaches eating disorder basics to spin instructors, boot camp commanders, and personal trainers. It helps them recognize emotional signs of a disorder (physical signs aren’t always obvious) and teaches effective ways to manage the situation.

So far, she’s done trainings at Equinox and Clay, and is hoping to schedule many more.

Perfetto, who teaches at SoulCycle and works with private clients, took the training and says it was packed with eye-opening information. “The things we normally say in class that we think are normal, for example, in a Thanksgiving Turkey Burn class, ‘Burn it all off before you go stuff your face!’ can be construed completely differently for someone who is struggling,” she says. “I learned to be careful with my language, how to recognize symptoms, and so much more.”

Yoga for Eating Disorders

The yoga mat can also be a “double-edged sword” when it comes to eating disorders, says Chelsea Roff, a yoga instructor who had a stroke at age 15, brought on by severe anorexia. “Yoga was one of the most powerful tools I was given to reach a new level of recovery,” Roff says, “but it can also be a convenient way to anesthetize yourself, to use the practice in a pathological way.”

To help yogis tell the difference, Roff created a Yoga for Eating Disorders workshop, which she’ll be offering at Virayoga on Saturday, March 9.

Like Rubin’s workshop, Roff’s offers general education on eating disorders, stresses language awareness, and points out warning signs instructors can look for.

“I teach them to watch for anything that comes from a place of ‘My body is broken, dirty, I need to fix it,’” she says, “like an obsession with perfection in poses, people avoiding social activities to go to yoga multiple times a day, or people becoming really obsessed with detoxing and cleansing.”

Roff sees the work as vitally important, especially since yoga can be such a great resource for those recovering from disorders and because her role as an instructor puts her in a unique place to help those who are struggling.

Perfetto agrees. “As an instructor, you’re in a position of respect, so it’s really about taking a little bit of responsibility for our actions. It’s about helping people take care of their bodies and love their bodies, instead of just helping them lose weight.” —Lisa Elaine Held

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