Do gyms have a duty of care?

April 6, 2008 rooroo

Yesterday, I met up with a good friend of mine for an early supper Hummous Bros (I recommend the hot spiced apple juice) and we had a long natter about a number of things which I’m confident will end up in a long prose of musings.

I met K when we were working for this place and we soon became friends. K is vibrant, fun, full of energy, compassionate and randomly bursts into dance when the feeling or music grabs her. She’s very smart, has a background in psychology and I’m sure she can secretly read my subconscious. She also lifts a lot of heavy stuff, so she’s one of the few women I can have long meaningful conversations about weight training and nutrition.

The conversation took a turn towards people we frequently see at the gym. K started talking about two individuals she sees; a woman and man. The woman comes to the gym everyday. She spends hours on the CV machines. She reads a newspaper the entire time held close up to her face and doesn’t make any eye contact beyond that. She brings in a packet of chewing gum and chews through it while training. After she is done, she goes to the changing rooms, and vomits until there is nothing left to vomit. She has done this for every single workout, this is her ritual.

The man she sees she describes as incredibally thin, and uses the bike for an hour, then runs flat out on the treadmill for another hour, after which he is full of sweat, literally hanging off the treadmill or clinging onto something and choking in lungfuls of air very loudly.

I’m not sure if I have described either of these people very well, it’s often difficult to convey words well on the internet, however, I trust my friend’s judgement, she works with very vulnerable members of society on a daily basis. When we worked for ‘that place’ she had a way of knowing who was going to need some extra help and care, and I believe many women walked away having a better experience than they would have done if no one had said nothing and just sent her through the process.

She said, “If I was running a pub, and I see someone’s had enough, I could refuse to serve them. How this doesn’t seem to work at gyms, I don’t know.”

I asked K if she had done anything about it. She had. She went to speak to the manager at her gym. Both of the individuals were well known to the manager, and all of the staff. She explained how concerned she was, and had asked the manager if he had taken any steps to speak to either of them, he hadn’t. Then he said, “Well, to be honest, you can only really admire someone like that [the man].” K knew she wasn’t going to get anywhere, and left feeling pretty pissed off.

“Admire? That was all he could say to me?! Breena, if you saw this man, no one in their right mind could say they’re in admiration for him, he is so thin and what he is doing to himself is not healthy. I don’t know if there is something metabolic there, or psychological, but if he walked into a hospital, you would want to admit him.”

I asked her if she was going to say something herself: “You know, l really want to. I really want to approach both of these people and just have a chat with them. I really don’t talk to anyone at my gym and I think I should, even if it’s something like, “Hi, how are you doing?” But, I know that if I try and say anything to either of those people, I’m most likely to get, “Mind your own fucking business.” And they’d probably be right. The thing is, if it’s a member of staff, they at least have that small position of authority and knowledge where they have a right to come across and say they’re a bit concerned.”

I thought about my own gym. There are definiately a couple of individuals there who I believe are ill. But it goes beyond that. I’ve seen people do highly dangerous things with equiptment yet, the instructors have done nothing to intervene. I recall seeing a young man deadlifting with very poor form, poor enough for him to be wincing after his sets and clutching and rubbing his lower back in pain. There was an instructor in the area, he saw what happened, and walked off, as he was done rubbing WD40 into one of the machines.

Again, there was nothing that could have stopped me from saying something. But I’m not that confident in approaching people, especially when it comes to unsolicited advice, and as a woman I don’t think I’m likely to be taken that seriously in the free weights room. Plus, thinking selfishly here, it’s not my job to be concerned about that, it’s theirs, and it goes beyond the duty of showing someone how not to fall of the treadmill so they don’t injure themselves and sue. Not tarring them all with the same brush, at my gym there are a couple of brilliant instructors who intervene when necessary, it happened with me once, and I was greatful for the advice I got, as it made my workout more effective and I progressed quicker than I would have done had I stuck to the same thing.

Back to K’s gym, and I asked her what she thought the instructors should say. “It’s never easy to tell someone you’re concerned about their health if they’re not willing to see it themselves. But I see no harm in an instructor going up to someone and saying, “Hi, I’ve noticed that you’ve been a member for a while, would you like to come in for a health assessment?” So at least some dialogue has been opened and you can spend some time with that person going over their goals and having a chat, if they want. But standing by and doing nothing, to the extent where you’re burying your head in the sand and saying that’s something to admire – that’s wrong.” 

I’m inclined to see things from my friend’s perspective. However, I know from experience that if a person is unwilling to seek help, anything you do or say won’t make much difference until they seek it out themselves. As a medical student, I sometimes spend more time with patients than the team does, and I’ve had patients give me information about their lives which has rung alarm bells with me. I’m not a doctor yet, but I believe I have a duty of care to that person, so with their permission, I take the information that has been given to me to a more senior member of staff, and their care can be adapted to the new information given. It’s not a case of me being ‘nice’ or wanting to stick my nose in, I believe it’s my responsibility. Back to the gyms and in the meantime, I don’t see any harm in making an attempt to reach out and get to know your clients. Fitness instructors aren’t trained therapists, doctors or experts in eating disorders and such and such, but surely they have the expertise to discuss fitness plans, nutrition and physiology in a dispassionate manner without sounding preachy?

All sorts of people come and use gyms for a variety of reasons. Some will be successful in their quests, others will not. However, especially in my own gym, I’d like to see more of the instructors taking an active role with their clients, who all pay good money to use the facilities. Please don’t walk past when you see someone doing something stupid or dangerous. Please don’t get in the way of the machine I’m using and have a chat with your buddy, the security guard who came in for a natter. And please don’t close yourself off in your office for hours on end, looking through Facebook.


Entry Filed under: feministing, free range rude, gym, musings, people watching

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. elle&hellip  | 

    It doesn’t change your point, but pubs don’t stop serving drunk people out of any magnanimous concern for them. Pups stop serving drunk people because they start fights, break furniture and throw up. And of course, starting fights, breaking furniture and throwing up costs pubs money. Sadly, I think if morbid exercise regimes cost gyms money, they’d soon step in and have a word.

    I like your blog, btw, except that it is making me feel undisciplined. It is also making me wonder what you look like naked, sorry!

  • 2. dommebell&hellip  | 

    Yep, I agree.

    Glad you like the blog, my gym obsession is exactly that though, I’m sure most people have better things to ponder about 😉 I’m impressed with the amount of cheese you and your friends went through, I may have to recreate that.

    My large mirror hasn’t been put up yet, I think I’ve forgotten how I look naked 😦

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