Lockdown layers and the silent pandemic that will affect our future health

lockdown layers

Recently I came across a new and very interesting piece of research called ‘Exploring changes in body image, eating and exercise during the COVID-19 lockdown’. It was a small UK-based study run through Facebook with the majority of respondents being female (78%). The measure consisted of nine statements set in the timeframe of ‘since the lockdown began’ and respondents were offered a 5-point Likert scale, from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). The results came as quite an eye-opener with responses to one of these questions in particular being something that causes great concern for our future health

On being asked to state their level of agreement to “More concerned about the way I look” 21.2% agreed and worrying a further 27.3% strongly agreed. The physical research on changes to body composition published on the BBC website states that ‘48% of people say they have put on weight during lockdown’ but the impact goes way beyond the physical changes. 

 It’s no great surprise that reports suggest lockdown measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., social distancing) have had an adverse consequence for people’s mental health, including increases in eating habits and body dissatisfaction. Researchers of this study stated “women were more likely than men to report increasing struggles with regulating eating, preoccupation with food and worsening body image. Those with a current/past diagnosis of eating disorders reported significantly greater difficulties in regulating eating, increased preoccupation with food, exercise, thoughts and behaviours and concern about appearance, even when compared to those with other mental health and developmental disorders.” The researchers concluded that factors such as the restrictions on movement and the accessibility of food throughout the day could be responsible for the fact that “lockdown may significantly influence people’s eating habits, exercise behaviours, and body image”. 

It seems logical that anxieties about weight gain during lockdown and stigmatizing media messages about the dangers of greater bodyweight might contribute to increased body shame and levels of disordered eating, especially in vulnerable populations such as those with a current or historic eating disorder. Hence this month’s topic: body dysmorphia disorder. 

Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition that causes people to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about their appearance. It’s a relatively common disorder with studies suggesting 0.7 – 2.4% of the general population experience it. Certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering BDD, including genetics, obsessive-compulsive disorder and negative life experiences such as bullying, neglect or abuse. So how does BDD link to the fitness industry and how can we combat it? 

In the fitness world, there are constant and obvious pressures to conform to ideals of beauty, body shape, weight and size, and so we need to be familiar with BDD for the sake of ourselves and our clients. We operate in a media-focused industry and, since the pandemic, online fitness and communication have become an even bigger part of our work. Marketing fitness results is a powerful tool. We all love to share a client transformation before and after photos, but contextualising individuals with their unique situations and outcome expectations is crucial. We have an obligation to ensure people are well educated and well informed about what kinds of transformation and realistic and what are not. 

I caught up with a very good (and very wise!) friend of mine – Elliott Upton of UPFitness Marbella – about this and he spoke about our human tendency towards negativity bias. We focus on the issues or problems that hold the most importance and interest for us. If there are no problems, we tend to look for them – creating the possibility of inventing problems out of nowhere. The stunning models in adverts and the before-after marketing strategies of fitness studios create all kinds of unrealistic comparisons. This is particularly true of the comparisons that we know are made not with real people, but with filters, photoshop and drug enhancement. 

Here are some vignettes from my years working in the fitness industry:

Compulsive exercise. I remember working in a Cannons Health Club years ago where I would watch the same girl walk sheepishly through the turnstiles before work, on her lunch break and again after work. If this were you watching this, how would tackle it? Is it ok to let someone choose how often they workout or should you intervene?

Extreme dieting measures. In the same club in Chichester at the start of my career, we had a member with a very obvious eating disorder. She did not have a personal trainer at the time and was very much an introvert. As part of a health industry, we know we have a responsibility to act in the interests of our customers, but what is the right way to respond in this case?

Preoccupation with, or avoidance of, their image in the mirror. Gyms are full of mirrors and it’s telling that I can reel off a handful of names of gym members who seem to have “mirror issues.” We should be mindful of both preoccupation and avoidance of image; both can be indicative of an underlying problem. 

Excessive grooming. Probably a slightly harder-to-spot trait of a BDD sufferer but it’s something that can indicate someone who is striving for the perfect image. 

Negative self-talk about body image. This is probably the most obvious one and something we face daily. We all have those gym members or PT clients that complain believe that their body mass is either too big or too small. Maybe we’re also responsible for playing up our own imperfections? Muscle mass can be quite a big issue amongst men. Muscle dysmorphia (otherwise known as “Bigorexia”) can lead to severe depression in gym-goers, sometimes resulting in substance misuse.

Our responsibility as fitness professionals is the safeguard people from not just physical but also emotional and social harm. Mental health in particular is moving to the forefront of our industry, especially after the devastating effects that lockdown has had on so many; we cannot be content with monitoring muscle movements and core strength if the person is wasting away on the inside.

So; as a fitness professional, we have a duty to steer people away from unattainable and unrealistic results where we are able to spot the symptoms of BDD. Ongoing research to explore individual differences in the trajectories of change in eating, exercise and body image as lockdown measures ease will be important for understanding the full psychological impact of this pandemic and improve service and public health planning going forward.

We can’t change the way that impossibly perfect bodies are presented in the media, or the dreams of more or less miraculous transformations that drive people to join gyms every January. But we can make our businesses welcoming places where we manage the expectations of our clients whilst encouraging them to become fitter and healthier… and hopefully enjoy the experience while they’re there. If our clients can walk out at the end of the session with a smile on their face, that is the best thing that any of us can hope to see in the mirror.

References

MacKenzie Robertson, Fiona Duffy, Emily Newman, Cecilia Prieto Bravo, Hasan Huseyin Ates, Helen Sharpe, Exploring changes in body image, eating and exercise during the COVID-19 lockdown: A UK survey,

Appetite, Volume 159,2021,105062,
ISSN 0195-6663,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2020.105062.
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666320316846)

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