Burnley-born mental health nurse and Preston S.E.E.D clinical director warning about gym addiction following Covid-19 pandemic

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The medic has seen nearly 500 referrals to her Preston clinic since 2020 as more people struggle with mental illness following lockdown.

Shelley Perry, S.E.E.D clinical director, says many gym users start working out to boost their emotional wellbeing as they adjust to post-pandemic life but end up becoming addicted and developing eating disorders.

Shelley, a mental health nurse, said: “Social media and gyms are both breeding grounds for eating disorders. Gym culture often creates eating disorders. People are going to gyms to feel better about themselves but if they are already vulnerable then it can be quite dangerous.

A woman doing boxing exercises to work out. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

“If I look in any one gym, I can spot at least three people with an eating disorder.

“Some are great and say, ‘No you can’t come in, you’re not well’.

“But I have had to ring many gyms and say, ‘She’s emaciated, you shouldn’t let her in’.

Shelley added: “I’d love to help educate PTs around the mentality of eating disorders, how to spot the signs, how to encourage people to eat the right stuff, and help get PTs and nutritionists on the same page. We need to move away from the diet mentality because it’s so dark and instead have more of a focus on the mind, wellbeing and balance.”

Shelley Perry, S.E.E.D clinical director.

What is gym addiction and how can it dominate someone’s life?

Shelley says someone with a gym addiction will prioritise exercise over everything else in their life, adding: “It changes the brain and affects relationships, which can break down. And it can affect your work if you’re malnourished and not functioning.”

How has the pandemic contributed to the issue?

Many people turned to food and exercise to cope with lockdown, becoming obsessive about calorie counting and burning off fat, and developed social anxiety due to being isolated, reveals Shelley. Our online worlds also deepened the fixation on social comparison.

Shelley Perry has suffered from an eating disorder in the past. Photographer – Neil O’Connor.

“Some people are going to extremes to feel mentally in control of their lives,” she said.

“It’s all a storm for developing mental illness, especially anxiety and depression, and there’s been a lot of bereavement. It’s all coupled with this hyper-focus on social media. It was a really dark environment.”

How can gym culture spark eating disorders?

While the gym acts as a portal into the offline social world, Shelley says the culture people find there often encourages them to compare their bodies, with vulnerable users becoming obsessed with achieving the perfectly sculpted or lean look as their workouts become more extreme.

Shelley Perry outside Breathe Therapies Eating Disorder Help & Wellbeing Services.

She said: “All that comparison is really unhealthy. To compare, is to disappear because we’ll never be good enough. We’re always trying to stand up to someone else’s standards but they have a completely different body and metabolism. So we’re only setting ourselves up for failure.”

How can gyms help people who compulsively work out?

PTs can use a SCOFF Questionnaire to screen people for eating disorders. If an interviewee answers yes to two out of five questions, they likely have an eating disorder, Shelley reveals.

How can you access support and advice from S.E.E.D?