For some people, excelling at sports is a reward for working out and working hard. But it can also place an unhealthy emphasis on size, weight, diet and striving for perfection.

No one factor causes an eating disorder. Genetics, media messages and social environment all play a role. But we do know that athletes and performers are more likely than others to develop an eating disorder. As many as 3 of 5 female athletes have an eating disorder. And as many as 1 in 3 male athletes have one.

Eating disorders are more than what or how much a person eats. They’re also more than just how thin or overweight a person is. Eating disorders are types of mental illness. The signs and symptoms can be subtle. Often, in fact, athletes don’t recognize when it’s become a problem.

While there are countless benefits of exercise, it is possible to exercise too much. Consider seeing a professional if someone answers ‘yes’ to these questions:

  • Am I exercising just to burn calories?
  • Is exercise making my body weaker rather than stronger?
  • Do I become moody if I exercise less?
  • Is working out more important to me than my family and friends, school or work?
  • Do I continue to exercise even when I have an injury?
  • Have friends or family expressed concern about how much I am working out?

What to say (and NOT say) to someone about weight and working out

Ads and the media often praise being thin and working out. They can suggest that more is always better.

We, too, can unknowingly reinforce unhealthy thinking in athletes with comments that seem innocent. For example, we might say, “You look great!” to someone who has lost weight. Or we might admire someone’s will power and discipline when they spend a lot of time exercising.

Avoid a focus on weight. Instead talk about other areas where athletes can improve performance. Focus on a person’s strength. Or, delve into the mental and emotional components of their sport. Celebrate the athlete for their talents beyond the physical. Talk about strengthening body, mind and spirit. And ask about school, friends or other activities.

If you’re worried about someone’s eating or exercise, say so. Talk about the health risks of low weight or eating disorders. And encourage them to talk to their doctor or to an eating disorders professional. Melrose Center’s experts can be reached by calling 952-993-4100.

Learn more in the Melrose Heals podcast

During each episode of the Melrose Heals podcast, Karen L. Nelson, a licensed clinical psychologist at Melrose Center, hosts honest conversations about the topics near and dear to people and families impacted by eating disorders. We hope you’ll listen and start healing.