4 women share how CrossFit helped them overcome eating disorders
By now you’ve probably heard a CrossFitting neighbor, coworker, or Tinder date go on and on (and on) about how the high-intensity sport has made them stronger, more mobile, and more social.
While there are plenty of other health benefits of CrossFit, for some women, CrossFit comes with one particular life-changing effect: It’s helped them overcome an eating disorder.
“It’s really great that some people have found CrossFit to be a helpful tool in their recovery,” says Matt Stranberg, R.D., C.S.C.S., lead nutritionist and exercise science advisor for Walden Behavioral Care’s GOALS Program, a specialized treatment program designed for athletes living with eating and exercise disorders.
Of course, while these mental transformations are inspiring, it’s important to remember that CrossFit is just *one* possible tool. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for working through an eating disorder; everyone’s path to recovery is unique and more complex than it appears.
“Understanding the function of the activity—especially if the movement had previously been used to support the eating disorder—is important,” says Stranberg. “Using physical activity like CrossFit as a way to appreciate your body and all it allows you to do, for example, is very different than using it as a way to manipulate your shape or weight.” As with any type of activity undergone during recovery, Stanberg recommends doing CrossFit under the watchful eye of a professional. Here, four women share how CrossFit served as an important tool in their recovery and helped them learn to celebrate their bodies.
Carleen Mathews (formerly known as Carleen Lessard) is a three-time CrossFit Games athlete and owner of CrossFit Saint Helens in Saint Helens, Oregon, who first overcame drug and alcohol addiction and then an eating disorder with the help of CrossFit. Now, she runs a program called Power C.L.E.A.N, where anyone who is at least 48 hours clean and sober can workout for free.
Before CrossFit: “I’ve had a poor relationship with food for as long as I can remember. My mom had a bad relationship with food, and [as I was] growing up, that got modeled for me. My parents divorced when I was 5, and at about that time I began overeating and became very overweight. My mom had me on every diet she could think of. I was a very active high schooler and dove into sports. I got a scholarship to play softball in college—but even in college, my friends and I were always trying new diets.
After college, when I didn’t have softball anymore, my eating disorder really progressed. I started by restricting my eating and running a lot. I began getting attention for losing weight, and I wanted more. I ate as little as possible and as “healthy” as possible. Then the restricting turned into bingeing and bingeing turned into binge and purge. It was an ongoing cycle.
I finally decided I didn’t want to live like this anymore and committed to getting into outpatient treatment. I spent time in the treatment center finally learning how to reduce my ED behaviors, but then my drinking increased. This continued until I decided to stop drinking in October 2010.”
Finding CrossFit: “After leaving my treatment for ED, I didn’t trust myself to not to go right back into what I had previously done, so I hired a personal trainer and entrusted him with my fitness. Soon after, I heard about CrossFit and decided to give it a try.
What really drew me to the sport is that I didn’t need to be anyone I wasn’t. I was free to just be me and everyone there accepted me for that. It also allowed me to feel athletic again and gave me a competitive drive I missed after softball.
What really sticks out to me is that a few months into starting CrossFit, I was chatting with other women and they opened up about their body image and eating disorder history. It was at that moment that I realized that CrossFit could help me feel less alone; I was so empowered by these strong women who had also overcome disordered eating.
This journey is always evolving. As I’m transitioning away from competitive CrossFit, I’m learning to celebrate my body in this stage of life. I’m grateful that more and more women in CrossFit are continuing to open up about the reality that our bodies are always changing.”
Sabrina Glunt, 24, is an Ohio-raised, New York-based CrossFit coach and HIIT instructor. She found CrossFit in the summer of 2017 and credits it with helping her overcome a cycle of calorie restriction followed by bingeing, and an unhealthy relationship for the scale. Now, she feels confident in her body, and hopes, in her coaching, to help other women do the same.
Before CrossFit: “I grew up overweight. My first attempt at dieting was when I was 8 years old. In middle school, I tried every diet I saw. Then, in high school, I began severely restricting my calories, but it was difficult to maintain and eventually led me to binge eat. This cycle happened between 2010 and 2017.”
Finding CrossFit: “I found CrossFit by getting a job at a fitness studio that had some CrossFit classes, and it was exactly what I needed. As I stuck with CrossFit, my body began moving in ways I never thought it could and I LOVED it. My perception of women in strength training made a complete 180. The idea that I could be strong became sexy to me.
I learned from my fellow CrossFitters and coaches that in order to keep doing well I needed to eat the right things—but, most importantly, I needed to eat. I began to look at food as my friend. I also stopped stepping on the scale. For the first time in my life, I felt truly healthy. I can happily say that I’m full of muscles and I’ve never felt so empowered and sexy as a woman.
CrossFit hasn’t been a “quick” fix, but it has played a huge role in helping me overcome it all. The unhealthy relationship I had with food, the scale, and working out wasn’t resolved overnight. It’s taken a lot of work both mentally and physically to get where I am today. I’ll have off days, but I’m happy to say they happen a lot less than they used to.”
Sarah Jenkins struggled with disordered eating from when she was 10 years old until she was 25 when she found CrossFit—which she credits for teaching her how to properly fuel her body and support her through recovery. In 2014, she and her husband opened CrossFit 513 United in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Here, she aims to, “provide a space to help others navigate their way to their own food freedom and develop a meaningful lifestyle focused on health and wellness.”
Before CrossFit: “Growing up, I was heavily influenced by my mother, who was obsessed with dieting, and enrolled all five of her children into whatever diet she tried: low-fat, low-calorie, plant-based, the organic movement, colon cleanses, mineral and vitamin regimens, aloe juice fasts, you name it.
At age 14, my eating disorder “officially” kicked off, when I decided 1,000 calories a day was all I was “allowed” to eat. I don’t remember a defining moment or goal with my starvation methods, I just felt strongly that I had to do it and failing at it was a choice. I would be stronger than any craving, no matter what.
Then, throughout the years, I found a variety of ways and excuses to eat little. For instance, I was raised in a religious household and ‘fasting’ was an acceptable form of starvation, so I used that frequently, going weeks without food once during an internship at a church. I was praised for my discipline and profound spirituality.”
Finding CrossFit: “In 2013, when I was 25, I found CrossFit. It was instantaneous. After one workout, I was in love. The workout was unlike anything I had ever done and was also the hardest thing I had ever done. (And I say that as someone who was doing Bikram yoga five days a week and ran marathons for fun.)
In the box, I watched women fly gracefully through the air during muscle ups and was amazed at the possibility that women could be so strong and do things that even Olympic-level female gymnasts couldn’t. These women looked like warriors to me. I wanted to be strong too.
CrossFit is a world where quick fixes didn’t exist. In order to become good at CrossFit, I was going to have to feed my body to get the results I wanted, not starve myself. The shift went from how little I could eat and “survive” to how much I needed to in order to be healthy and properly fuel my body—a novel concept to me at the time!
Another variable that helped me is the unique community that CrossFit creates. Having that community there to support you and cheer you on is something you’ll never experience at Planet Fitness. It’s an environment that promotes and supports growth, be it mental or physical.
My journey of overcoming disordered eating isn’t yet over. Some days I still label myself as ‘bad’ when I eat things I ‘shouldn’t.’ But I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t introduced to true health and fitness, and I wouldn’t have the support required to overcome an eating disorder. My community stands behind me, cheers me on, pushes me to do what I think I cannot. We are truly in this together.”
For most of her life, body dysmorphia and diet obsession ruled Steph Gaudreau‘s thoughts. She analyzed every calorie and every gram of fat she ate. Then, in 2010 she was introduced to CrossFit, and that changed. Now, she’s certified nutritionist, strength-training expert, and author of the upcoming book The Core 4: Embrace Your Body, Own Your Power.
Before CrossFit: “For my whole life, I felt like my body was different and, frankly, wrong. When I was in elementary school, I have a vivid memory of my stepfather saying that I was “the fat one,” and it stuck with me. At age 10, I started going through puberty and joined sports, but even through high school all I did was compare myself to the skinnier kids on the team. Then, senior year of high school, I got a job and had to stop doing sports. I gained weight.
In college, I joined a gym. In my mid-twenties, I became a mountain bike racer spending hours on the bike, desperate to be thinner. Then, I got into Xterra triathlons and I started training even more. I was in a really bad place mentally and weighed myself constantly.
In 2010, after the last race of the season, my then-husband snapped a photo of me in front of a waterfall near Lake Tahoe. My immediate response was to criticize how gross and fat I looked. Ironically, looking back, I was at the smallest I’d been in years—yet, I spent so much time and energy thinking about, worrying about, and analyzing my body. I never even realized this might be body dysmorphia until years later.”
Finding CrossFit: “In August 2010, a friend challenged me to a bodyweight CrossFit workout in my garage. I was feeling pretty burnt out from endurance mountain bike racing and triathlon, and I like a challenge so I said yes. I loved the workout and decided to go to my local CrossFit gym to sign up.
When I started CrossFit, I was in pretty decent cardiovascular shape from years of endurance sports, but so many of the movements were foreign to me, especially the gymnastics and the barbell work. Because everything was so new and challenging, I had to focus on what I was doing. There was literally no time to sit around obsessing about my body during a workout because I had to keep my mind engaged to learn.
I was about six months into doing CrossFit when I realized my mindset was changing. Competing in the CrossFit Open (and doing well!) made me realize that I cared way more about performance than the number on the scale. I wanted to get strong just like the other women at my box. I gained probably 20 to 25 pounds, but I never once freaked out. I was stronger and performing better, and that’s what I cared about most.
When I took the floor at the SoCal Regionals with my CrossFit team in 2013, I realized then and there how much my life had changed in a positive way. Being obsessed with getting smaller had never served me. By focusing on strength, embracing my body, and taking up space, I felt limitless and free. I’ve since stopped competing and have transitioned into more Olympic weightlifting and strength training, but I still do the occasional WOD or two.”
This story originally appeared on Shape.