The question of what can make a healthy commitment to something like a sport turn into an unhealthy obsession - and what can reverse this transition and turn obsession back into health and happiness - is addressed by an article I came across recently. Here the personal trainer Gillian Mounsey describes the time she recently spent being trained in powerlifting and Olympic lifts at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club by Mark Rippetoe, and explores the issues relating to diet, body image, health, and strength raised by this period of training.

I found the article interesting, and relevant to my blog on anorexia, in several respects. Firstly, it highlights the dangers - both mental and physical - of an exercise obsession allowed to go unchecked; the ways in which the 'exercise high' and its corollary, an addiction to self-punishment, contribute to such an obsession; and the extent to which (certain sectors of) society validates that obsession, indeed demands it of one. In general, the piece identifies the sad truths that even in the sporting world, appearance is often valued over performance, and that the distinction between the 'athlete' and the mere 'exerciser' is overlooked.

Mounsey also describes the fear that is attendant on the decision to eat more to feed her progress in the gym, but the rewards that eating through the fear can bring, in terms of getting to know oneself and what one is capable of - stopping competing obsessively with others, and instead learning to compete meaningfully with oneself. Despite having devoted all her adult life to sport, the author describes cogently how revelatory an experience it was for her to do something that should be intuitive and ubiquitous: doing sport whilst eating enough to perform at her best. It was also a revelation to her that there are women for whom physical strength, health, and fun matter more than dress size or body weight.

I've a couple of caveats and a clarification to add. Firstly, Mounsey's mention of the 'lack of control' some of her clients exercise in their unsuccessful attempts to lose weight is, I think, not the best way of thinking about the failure to achieve this goal (I've written about how the sense of complete control in anorexia and dieting is so close to its opposites, anxiety, panic, and self-loathing, for example in an early post and in discussion with readers. Secondly, I imagine that anyone who is willing to train other people to take part in figure competitions will be unable fully to espouse the lessons described as having been learnt here: extremely low body-fat, and the disordered thinking and training necessary to achieve it, is a prerequisite of success in such contests. Thirdly, the quotation on p. 8 from Mark Rippetoe's Strong Enough? might, I think, be (mis)read as implying that one's 'genetics' can be 'best expressed' only as the consequence of a competitive athletic training programme, and that all other forms of beauty are lesser or non-existent. This is obviously not true: real-life beauty is determined by happiness more than anything else, and someone might be making rapid improvements in physical strength but also making him- or herself miserable achieving them, which would make their appearance anything but optimal. This is also probably not what Rippetoe means: the point is presumably rather that training for aesthetics rather than performance never leads anywhere, and thus cannot make you look as good (in the context of 'fitness') as can progressively challenging training of the sort done by 'athletes'. It certainly seems reasonable to argue that sport which pushes boundaries in strength and skill is more likely to lead to beauty (and happiness) than exercise in a monotonously draining, or just ineffectually cosmetic, sense.

Overall, the article is a powerful comment on the importance of giving one's body what it needs to perform at its best - and this is highly relevant to anyone recovering, or contemplating recovery, from an eating disorder, and not just those whose eating disorder is or was accompanied by an exercise obsession. Optimal performance, in the broadest sense of the word, is a concept that forcefully cuts through the anorexic (or related) valuation of thinness and hence weakness, and is one that women especially might find liberating. Finally, the article is testament, too, to how much other people can help us if we let them, and if they're patient enough not to be pushed away by our misguided notions of how little our bodies deserve from us.

Read it here.

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