BBC News

Eating disorders 'prevalent among fitness professionals'

By Rhiannon Beacham
BBC News, Bristol

image caption'I would do 200 kettle bell swings and 100 chin-ups just to have carbs'

Nisha Obaidullah first had an eating disorder when she was six years old.

Now aged 34 and a fitness professional with eight years' experience, she looks the picture of good health.

But it is only in the last three months that Ms Obaidullah, from Bristol, has begun to start eating properly.

There has been much publicity surrounding eating disorders and children or teenagers.

Ms Obaidullah claims fitness professionals are another group that can be affected by diseases like bulimia and anorexia.

She has now become a body confidence coach in a bid to help others with similar issues to her own.

Ms Obaidullah said it was not generally talked about in the industry because they did not want clients to think it meant they were unable to do their job.

"It's a very secretive disease," she said.

"You would not believe the number of fitness professionals who suffer.

"I want to spread awareness so people are not afraid to come forward for help."

'Percentage body fat'

She said it was not until January this year that she admitted to friends she was bulimic.

"I've been in the fitness industry since 2004. The big thing in the industry is if you're telling a client to do x, y or z, you should be doing it times 100. You've got to be perfect," she said.

"The pressure to look great and conform to that image is really great. They're always talking about what percentage body fat have you got."

Ms Obaidullah acknowledges that her eating problems began long before she became a fitness trainer, but said working in the industry exacerbated them.

She said she first stopped eating properly when she was bullied at school.

"I learned to put as much in my mouth as I could and then spat it out. That later translated into bulima.

"When I was older I said I was vegetarian and going to cook for myself."

For about a year she was eating just two finger rolls a day with half a cheese spread triangle in each.

Ms Obaidullah did not realise at the time that she looked bloated because she had coeliac disease.

'Discovered laxatives'

"Looking in the mirror, I'd say 'you're disgusting'," she said.

She was diagnosed with coeliac disease at 21, began a healthier diet and got into fitness.

Then she discovered laxatives.

"It was more anorexia in my teens, I didn't like throwing up. I thought 'brilliant, this [laxatives] solves everything'.

"It got to a point I was taking 30 a day."

Ms Obaidullah, a single mother to a four-year-old boy, said she stopped taking them while she was pregnant and "ate perfectly".

But when she and River's father split up, her disorder returned.

"I dropped a lot of weight really quickly and went down to a size four.

"I was running an abs challenge and used that as an excuse to start fasting again. I was training two or three times a day.

"I would do 200 kettle bell swings and 100 chin-ups just to have carbs - some gluten-free toast or some spaghetti.

"After that I got really depressed and started eating everything in sight.

"People think you do it because you like chocolate or you're being greedy but actually you don't even taste it, it's almost like you're in another zone."

She said it was her son who finally made her realise she had to take action.

'Finding a balance'

"River said to me 'why do you always take medicine every time you eat? Why are you always in the toilet?'"

She underwent therapy which "literally changed my life".

"It's been an uphill struggle, I haven't taken laxatives now in about three months, I have breakfast and I try and have three meals a day.

image captionFellow fitness professional Sarah Brookes said the industry could be "very hard"

"There's so much more to fitness than eating and training. The core of fitness comes from being happy in your own life.

"I want to see a massive change in the industry. I want people to recognise me being bulimic doesn't mean I can't do my job.

"I'd like to see the shame taken away from it. It shows courage and strength to get help."

One of her clients, fellow fitness professional Sarah Brookes, said she used to imposed a very strict eating regime on herself before she got help.

"Having worked in the fitness industry for a number of years you'd think that we would have everything health and fitness-related sorted when it comes to ourselves," she said.

"However, the industry can be at times very hard on its own members and a quite pressurised and unpleasant place to be."

A spokeswoman for eating disorders helpline Beat said: "Working in the fitness industry brings its own kind of pressures and we are aware that we are contacted by individuals in all areas of sport and exercise."

There are no figures for the number of instructors with eating disorders, according to the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs).

Registrar Jean-Ann Marnoch said: "Almost all exercise training courses provide guidance on healthy eating, so all REPs registered instructors are aware of the importance of balanced nutritional intake and how it can be achieved.

"That's not to say there aren't instructors out there with eating disorders, although most understand they have to be physically healthy to carry out the exercise they do each day.

"I would urge anyone who has concerns about a colleague or a client to read our guidelines."

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