Legal Ramifications When a Member or Guest Suffers From an Eating Disorder
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Paul R. Bedard, Esquire
Eating disorders are life-threatening for many, and these dangerous health conditions are far more complex than most people realize. In a briefing paper published by IHRSA entitled, Eating Disorders, Dr. Ron Thompson of the Bloomington Center for Counseling and Human Development described eating disorders as, "not simply disorders of eating; they are mental disorders that manifest themselves in a variety of eating and weight-related symptoms. They are potentially life-threatening disorders with multiple determinants and serve multiple functions and purposes for the affected individual." The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
Although far more women than men engage in eating disorder behaviors, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc., reports that more than 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. At least one person dies as a result of an eating disorder every 62 minutes. Eating disorders affect people regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status.
Many of those suffering from eating disorders exercise excessively in order to lose weight, often within the four walls of a health club. In fact, it has been estimated that 80% of anorexic individuals exercise excessively or in some unhealthy fashion. Those who diet or exercise to the extreme are often easy to recognize within a health club. This reality puts health clubs on the front lines and in a position where personnel can potentially help the many health club members and guests who currently suffer from these life-threatening disorders.
However, the law as it relates to this issue within the context of health club operations is murky at best. There is no readily available case indicating that a health club has any duty or obligation to proactively address a member or guest who appears to be suffering from an eating disorder. In fact, depending on the severity and the impact of the eating disorder, the individual in question may be protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additional considerations arise given the greater likelihood of a medical emergency when a member or guest is excessively exercising or dieting to the extreme.
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