Personal Trainer Kelsey Wells Gets Real About Eating Disorders and Toxic Fitness Culture

Kelsey Wells talks orthorexia and toxic wellness culture
Supplied by Sweat

Trigger warning: this article contains references to disordered eating which could raise concerns for some readers. 

Have you ever felt guilty about your exercise routine? Kicked yourself for hitting the snooze button?  Fretted over achieving only three out of five pilates classes in a week? Skipped wine with friends after work because you missed spin

If you’re human and on the internet, chances are yes – and you’re not alone. 

We’re constantly told that working out, getting our endorphins pumping and our chakras aligned is the best thing we can do for our mental health. So, why does it often leave us feeling like failures? 

Kelsey Wells is a personal trainer with 2.9 million followers on Instagram who hang out for her exercise classes and fitness tips. She’s so full of energy it’s hard to imagine her missing a class, let alone beating herself up for one. But when I spoke to Kelsey last month, she said that toxic fitness culture is something we should all be concerned about. 

In Sydney to promote her Redefine Fitness: Strength & Mindfulness Program, I went in expecting to chat about easy strength hacks and mindfulness tips we could implement at home. But when I asked her about a post on her Instagram grid that read: “Nothing you could eat, is as unhealthy for you as shaming yourself for eating” the conversation turned serious. 

Kelsey said the comment came from deep personal experience, as well as the stories she hears from thousands of women across the world.

“I developed quite toxic, disordered eating patterns early on in my life,” she shared, adding: “It wasn’t an intentional thing at first.”

Soon enough, though, it did become intentional, and it took a long time for Kelsey to realise how unwell she was because “thin bodies and fad diets were so in vogue”.

Kelsey connects with thousands of women across the globe on the daily, and said that many are struggling with the same toxic relationship with fitness and diet.

“As women, we have been conditioned to beat ourselves up for not jumping through enough hoops,” she said.

It’s an issue that for many women, extends to fitness and food, and in Kelsey’s professional work, she’d observed first-hand how COVID has magnified the issue.

In recent years, a litany of studies have connected COVID, lockdowns and the associated changes to our exercise routines and eating habits — as well as increased time spent on social media — to relapses and increases in eating disorders worldwide.

In the UK there was an 84% rise in eating disorders over a five-year period that covered the pandemic. The steepest rise was in women and female children under the age of 18, while the numbers of boys and men hospitalised doubled.

Meanwhile, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA, a region less impacted by COVID than Victoria and NSW, reported an “outbreak” in anorexia nervosa in children, with a 104% increase in emergency admissions for anorexia nervosa. The Butterfly Foundation, Australia’s leading national eating disorder charity, experienced up to 195% increases in demand for assistance throughout the pandemic.

Social media has played a large role in this. Last year, Instagram was called out for serving pro-eating disorder content to children whose online behaviour indicated an interest in diets. But it’s not just sinister pro-ana accounts that can trigger dangerous behaviour.

An emerging disorder that spiked during the pandemic was “Orthorexia Nervosa.” While orthorexia is not officially recognised, three-quarters of Australian health professionals believe it should be viewed as a distinct eating disorder. Orthorexia can look like anorexia, but is triggered by an obsession with health, rather than weight. This can include the exclusion of multiple food groups, following trending diets like paleo or raw food, and overexercising. These behaviours are frequently modelled by wellness and fitness accounts.

Kelsey Wells talks toxic fitness culture and eating disorders

We have spent the last two years being told that exercise and healthy eating is the key to staying alive. Whether it’s the government telling us we can exercise away the pandemic blues or social media and Reddit forums (incorrectly) suggesting healthy eating can stop you from getting Covid, you’d be forgiven for thinking that working out and eating green is the single most important thing you can do. Kelsey is calling BS.

“It is neither valid, productive or healthy,” she said. “Exercise and nutrition are good things to be aware of, [but] when our efforts in those areas are causing us stress, anxiety and guilt, that’s at a detriment to our mental health, that’s when we need to stop.” 

For fitness professionals, eating disorders can be hard to discuss. After all, they’re the dark side of the industry. Kelsey believes it’s important to break the stigma.

“Eating disorders are something that needs to be centred, talked about and destigmatised,” she said, adding that we shouldn’t be ashamed of something caused by the societal pressure placed on women, that we absorb “even before we can talk”.

“We can’t shed or release pressure unless we understand that it’s there,” she added.

Reconnecting With Exercise: 

Kelsey Wells discusses fitness culture and eating disorders

Once your relationship with exercise has become unhealthy, it can be hard to start again — particularly when you gravitate to intense workouts like cardio or strength training. Wells designed her Redefine Fitness: Strength & Mindfulness Program based on the techniques she used while finding her way back to regular, mentally healthy workouts.

Wells has incorporated the psychology-based practice of mindfulness by adding intention setting, affirmations and gratitude into her workouts.

For those unfamiliar with yoga and meditation, setting intentions or thanking yourself during an intense workout session might feel odd or, as Wells says, “cheesy and weird.” But it’s really not.

Each class includes graded strength training based on your fitness levels, but starts with a moment of intention setting, includes positive affirmations throughout, and ends with gratitude. Sure, it’s a change from spending a session beating yourself up before thanking god that it’s all over, but Wells believes it’s the key to building a mentally and physically healthy, shame-free routine.

After all, while some people slide into dangerous habits, even more simply ditch their New Years’ resolution workouts because they’re resentful and frustrated.

“You will always get further when you’re anchored in a positive place,” Wells said. “Adopt a mindset of abundance, not ‘I can’t have this’ or ‘I must do that’ — tell yourself to have more. ‘I’m going to eat more nutrients, I’m going to hydrate myself more.’ When it comes from a positive place, you start to crave it.” 

You can access Kelsey Wells Redefine Fitness: Strength & Mindfulness Program via the Sweat App. You can download Sweat via the app store for $11.99 a month and receive access to 35 unique programs including yoga, boxing, pilates and barre classes.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673 or you can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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