Fitness content is everywhere during the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say it's putting those with a history of eating disorders at risk.

  • As more people worldwide stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, there's a new 'added pressure' to stay fit, according to Claire Mysko, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). 
  • Experts and many who have struggled with eating disorders say the proliferation of at-home fitness content poses a problem to their community. 
  • Some influencers say they feel a unique responsibility to be mindful of the content they put out during this time. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Ryan Sheldon started to feel a certain kind of stress creep up on him in the last couple of weeks. As 23 US states have issued stay-at-home orders and others have mandated varying levels of quarantines to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheldon, a model who says he will always be recovering from his eating disorder, began to wonder if he would have to exercise more than usual to stay as fit as the athletic bodies he saw on his Instagram feed. 

"I got this sinking feeling in my stomach and I didn't notice it at the time, but as I kept scrolling, it got greater and greater," Sheldon, who is an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), told Insider. "I started thinking immediately, 'Well maybe I should add an extra hour to my workout because I want to look like that.'" 

Sheldon wasn't alone in his anxiety. The number of at-home workouts posted on Instagram increased more than five times on March 18, compared to the amount shared just a few days prior, according to a representative for the app. While it's great to have free and easily available exercise options as fitness studios and gyms shut down due to the pandemic, experts and many who have struggled with eating disorders say the proliferation of this content can pose a problem for mental health. 

From the popular pushup challenge (or "see 10 do 10" challenge,) which encourages friends to post a video of themselves doing 10 pushups, to celebrities sharing their own workout plans on apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, there's a new "added pressure" to stay fit, according to Claire Mysko, the CEO of NEDA. 

The "broader public" needs to keep in mind that "there's a community that's really at-risk," says the CEO of NEDA. 

Erin Morrissey, who runs the blog and brand Erin Lives Whole, likes to share her workout routines with her followers, in addition to recipes and lifestyle content on YouTube and Instagram. But Morrissey, who previously spent time in both inpatient and outpatient eating disorder recovery programs, and says she has struggled with over-exercise, has also felt this content catching up to her. "I've been feeling incredible pressure from everyone, because everyone's talking about what the latest free workout is, or what's the best thing to do to burn calories while I'm home," Morrissey told Insider. 

While most people around the world fear falling ill or infecting others with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Morrissey and Sheldon are part of a large community facing this additional challenge. In the US alone, at least 30 million people struggle or have struggled with an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 

"There is this trend right now of comments, and memes, and resources, that really are focusing on messages about fear of gaining weight," Mysko told Insider. Many are making "flippant comments about how people are going to gain" weight while stuck at home, she said. This might be a joke for those who haven't dealt with disordered eating, but Mysko said those jokes aren't funny at all. "It's really important for the broader public to understand that there's a community that's really at-risk, and particularly susceptible to having these comments be damaging," Mysko said. 

Meghan Watson, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders, said that weight-gain jokes and memes may be defense mechanisms. "A lot of my clients who use that kind of humor, even as they struggle themselves to get through this, it's really a way to cope with the anxiety and the stress of not being able to use your regular routine," Watson told Insider, noting that it was symptomatic of a pervasive diet culture, which registered dietician and author Christy Harrison says "worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue."

"I just feel like in so many ways, this has become a way to kind of allow diet culture to just really to grow and expand very insidiously," Watson said. 

The pandemic itself presents greater than average hurdles for those with eating disorders. 

Eating disorder recovery will always be harder than usual during a crisis like COVID-19, according to Watson. Staying focused on body-positivity is already "hard enough without a pandemic, without job loss, and food insecurity, and real chronic anxiety, and fear of sickness," she said. 

In a BuzzFeed News essay, writer Addy Baird reflected on how the coronavirus has challenged her own eating disorder recovery. "We're without normal access to recovery groups, and in the line of fire for all sorts of triggering situations and conversations while socially distancing and quarantining. There's constant talk about food," Baird wrote. "There's no more in-person therapy — but there is a constant discourse about at-home workouts." 

Baird's experience echoes Mysko's fears for her community. "There are added stressors for our community just around isolation and social distancing," Mysko said, because eating disorders "thrive on isolation." 

And in a time when nothing is certain, eating disorder sufferers say they find themselves limiting food or increasing exercise to feel in control. "What a lot of people feel like they can control is how much they eat," Watson said, "and how to make themselves feel whole using food." 

The notion that people should be "using this time" wisely to organize closets or get ahead on projects is also problematic, according to Mysko. "There are a lot of well-intentioned comments and content focused around using this time," she said. "The trait of perfectionism and the pursuit of achievement is already so much a risk factor and a factor in so many eating disorders." 

Some influencers say they feel a unique responsibility to be mindful of the content they put out during this time. 

View this post on Instagram

Originally I had planned on posting this post-workout pic with a roundup of my favorite online workout platforms and saying how fun it is to have a workout buddy, but yesterday I sporadically posted a story saying “me reminding you that just because you’re home and seeing 10,000 at home workout options doesn’t mean you always need to workout” and realized, through DMs, that it was what a lot of you needed to hear in that moment (or something you agreed with via the ?? back). I am a huge believer in movement assisting my mental health and I know it will play a large role in helping my sanity and anxiety through these times. Personally, for this exact reason, I have a goal of 15 minutes of movement a day, even if it is simply stretching or stepping outdoors (when available). However, I also acknowledge that it is being talked about now more than ever and think, especially for anyone who has had an obsessive behavior in this area in the past, it is a tad overwhelming. What I continue to remind myself is that while I am grateful for all of the newfound at-home options (both to those providing it and those sharing the information), I am not required by anyone to be doing anything, I am no “less than” if I decide to not workout today, and exercise does not define me. For anyone that has felt triggered by this in the past few days and resonated with my story / this post, I see you ♥️

A post shared by Cameron Rogers (@freckledfoodie) on

Morrissey, whose 140,000 followers look to her for her recipes as much as her stories of eating disorder recovery, said influencers should feel an additional obligation to their audiences right now. "We have a real responsibility because whether or not you have 2,000 followers or you have 100,000 followers, it doesn't matter: There's someone watching you," she said. "People take things very seriously as to what influencers say. They don't necessarily take it with a grain of salt." 

Cameron Rogers, a New York City-based health, wellness, and food influencer who runs the Freckled Foodie blog and brand said she made sure to remind her followers that "this doesn't have to be a time where we're so consumed by what we're eating." Rogers said she believes the "concept of gaining weight or losing weight is the last thing we should be focused on right now."

Rogers also said that in light of the overwhelming workout content available, she wants her followers to rethink their understanding of working out. "While I think movement is really important — I set a goal of 15 minutes of movement a day, whether it's going for an isolated walk, stretching in my bedroom, doing a HIIT [high intensity interval training] workout class in my apartment — it doesn't have to be intense," she said. 

New York City-based registered dietician and blogger Sammi Haber Brondo, who runs the Instagram account @veggiesandchocolate, said she wants her followers to remember that "it's okay to cut yourself some slack." 

"My main message that I've really been trying to get across is just one meal, or one day, or even a few weeks, is really not going to affect your health overall," Brondo told Insider. "It's the big picture that matters most. If your eating and your exercise looks different for a few weeks, that's okay." 

If you feel yourself getting anxious, take a moment to "curate your feeds." 

I put on a jean jacket and shot this by the window next to a plant to feel like I was outside 😂 ##wfh ##emotionaleating ##foryou ##fyp

Mysko recommends that people unfollow any social media accounts that threaten their mental health. "I think it's of the utmost importance in this moment that you can curate your feeds," she said. As this pandemic continues, Mysko said it's important to "look for, and be proactive about finding, resources and social media accounts that support your recovery, and have a more holistic approach to what it means to be healthy in this moment."

She also hopes people will realize that "anxiety is exhausting," and it's okay to step away from the concept of fitness. "We don't need to be so hyper-focused on movement and exercise and working out when what we might need is more rest and time for reflection, and taking a pause," she said. 

Sheldon, who said he has also had many friends complain about the overwhelming social media content, said he hopes influencers and others will start to realize that mental health is more important than any type of exercise. "Everybody's talking about working out," he said, "but nobody's talking about the mental state that you're in while you're stuck at home."

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text "NEDA" to 741741. 

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