National Eating Disorders Association
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Athletes and Body Acceptance

Riley Nickols, PhD, CEDS-S

Athletes devote a significant amount of time and resources in pursuit of maximizing performance in sport.  Athletes’ bodies are used as vessels to compete in sport and, when nourished and nurtured, the human brain and body are best equipped to perform optimally and consistently over a prolonged period of time.  An athlete’s heightened attunement to their body and associated body cues are both critical for sport performance, but the increased awareness to one’s body can also pose notable difficulties for athletes with an eating disorder.

Intensified awareness and heightened criticalness of one’s body are unfortunate symptoms that frequently occur in the context of an eating disorder.  In sport, this orientation can not only contribute to distressing thoughts and emotions, but can also result in destructive behaviors that can, and will, eventually compromise an athlete’s health status, sport performance, and involvement in sport.  Additionally, high body perseveration and/or dissatisfaction poses greater challenges that can impede enjoyment and performance in sport.   

If you struggle with accepting your body as an athlete, it is likely that loving your body feels even more inaccessible.  If so, might it be more palpable to work toward developing greater tolerance toward your body?  The underpinning for this consideration is that it can be possible to tolerate your body despite having difficulty accepting your body or loving your body.  What are some ways of thinking and behaving differently that might support greater body tolerance for you?  If loving, accepting, and tolerating your body seem unattainable, it is likely that caretaking for your body might feel more achievable.  Being a caretaker for your body as an athlete entails honoring your body despite how you feel about your body.  This might include:

- Consistently prioritizing meeting your energy and hydration needs 

- Getting adequate sleep and rest

- Abstaining from body comparisons that you make toward yourself, your teammates, and/or others 

- Remaining within approved training parameters 

- Immediately communicating to your coach/treatment team if you are injured

- Skipping or modifying a workout if/when needed

- Acknowledging gratitude for what your body allows you to do in life and sport

- Respecting and appropriately responding to behaviors and objective data (e.g., labs, cardiac functioning, weight) that are contraindicative of safe sport participation 

Although some of the above suggestions might evoke notable distress (i.e., skipping a planned workout), the consistent commitment to caretake for your body, despite your feelings about your body, is foundational for you to develop a more wholesome relationship with your body.  In essence, your feelings about your body have the best likelihood of improving when you can prioritize honoring your body’s objective and subjective cues on a consistent basis over time.  

Athletes with durability, longevity, consistency, and high performance in sport have a keen understanding that honoring and caretaking for your body are foundational to excelling in sport.  Body Acceptance Week is October 24-28 and there is no better time to consider how you can best honor and take care of your body. 

 

Riley Nickols, PhD, CEDS-S is a counseling and sport psychologist who specializes in working with athletes in his private practice, Mind Body Endurance where in-person and virtual services are provided to address performance, eating, mental health, and nutritional concerns for athletes. Dr. Nickols is on EDCare’s Scientific Advisory Board and is the Senior Program Advisor for Athlete Edge at EDCare in Denver, CO. He serves on the Clinical Advisory Council for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the steering committee for the proposed Division of Eating Disorders and Body Image as part of the American Psychological Association (APA) and was on the steering committee for Safe Exercise at Every Stage’s (SEES) Athlete Guidelines.