Written by Maria Oliver Smith 02/12/20

As we watch athletes fly across our screens, breaking records and raising the flag for our nation we understand these individuals as figureheads, elite and invincible. However, behind competitive sport lies a hidden crisis…

As the Coronavirus pandemic has ceased televised sport, the BBC took this pause in activity to address the stigma around men’s sport and eating disorders. Across two Panorama programmes presented by Colin Jackson and Freddie Flintoff “The making of an elite sportsman” presented stark realities. 

Bulimia is an eating disorder and mental health condition where people binge on food and then make themselves sick, take laxatives or exercise excessively. 

In the documentary, Freddie Flintoff describes how his struggle with bulimia began when focus was put on his weight during the early part of his international career. With tours across the world and successes that turned Freddie into a household name, the media brandished the sportsman as a “fat cricketer”. In his twenties, the labels the media gave Freddie sunk deep and it was at this point that bulimia became a coping mechanism for maintaining a physique that kept his waistline out of the headlines. Freddie described planning where and when he could have an episode to avoid his teammates from catching him – his biggest fear.

Following Freddie’s retirement from the sport he trained to become a heavy weight boxer, and one of his driving motivations was his hope to lose weight. He described looking back on his boxing career as looking at a “shell of a person”, with ambition to exercise for abs rather than for the enjoyment of the sport. 

For more than half of his life Flintoff has carried the burden of an eating disorder and until this BBC documentary, he had never spoken to a specialist about his relationship with food. Flintoff’s transparency with his health condition provided the nation with an insight into the pressures placed both through sports authorities and individual athletes on maintaining expectations for what we believe an athlete ‘should’ look like to be elite, invincible and an icon in a sporting field. 

Distinguishing Excessive Exercise

Excessive exercise may be difficult to distinguish, especially among athletes. The key feature that determines whether the exercise is problematic lies less in the quantity of activity than it does in the motivations and attitudes behind it: feeling exercise as a compulsion; exercising primarily to influence shape and weight; and feelings of guilt after missing an exercise session. 

Despite the stereotype that eating disorders only occur in women, about one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male. Several factors lead to men and boys being under – and undiagnosed for an eating disorder. Men can face a double stigma, for having a disorder characterised as feminine and for seeking psychological help. Additionally, assessment tests with language geared to women and girls have led to misconceptions about the nature of disordered eating in men. 

The signs, symptoms and recovery process for men who suffer from eating disorders should not be hidden in textbooks, unspoken nor ignored. One of the most vital resources available online is BEAT (a national eating disorder helpline) who offer telephone services, online peer support and detailed articles on the types of eating disorders and recommended routes into recovery. 

For those whom have experienced an eating disorder, considering intuitive movement is a useful route back to exercise. Consider what it was like to play, assess what activities you enjoy/have enjoyed and be honest about what activities were a part of your eating disorder. Be willing to talk about your emotions, thoughts and sensations. Being honest about the eating disorder as it comes up is the first step towards reclaiming movement and becoming more attuned to what your body is craving that day whether a bike ride, run, hike, or rest. 

Combining movement with a meditative or mind focusing component has been shown to reduce stress, fears and anxieties, as well as lessen feelings of isolation, body tension, chronic pain and depression. It can help you to feel both physically and mentally stronger, empowering you to feel more in control and ready to work towards recovery.

By shifting the focusing on the intrinsic pleasure of movement, you can enjoy the positivity and happiness that it brings. Movement can help you to connect to your body and feel a deep sense of gratitude. When this happens, it can be a healing part of the recovery process.

Freddie Flintoff’s story is not unique and we hope to raise awareness of invisible disorders and the routes to regain a balanced relationship with exercise and mental health. To watch the documentary follow the link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000n1xx/freddie-flintoff-living-with-bulimia


–      Beat Helpline: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/helplines

MIND eating disorder resources: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/treatment-support/

Categories: Mental Health


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