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Exercise Bulimia

November 9, 2011

Incorporating fitness into your life and staying active is essential to maintaining a healthy body and mind, but when does it become too much? Exercise Bulimia has been receiving significant media attention recently, and it is important that we make ourselves aware of this serious physical and mental issue that negatively affects lives.

Exercise bulimia is a subset of the psychological disorder called bulimia in which a person is compelled to exercise in an effort aimed at burning the calories of food energy and fat reserves to an excessive level that negatively affects their health

Compulsive exercisers will often schedule their lives around exercise just as those with eating disorders schedule their lives around eating (or not eating). Other indications of compulsive exercise are:[1]

  • Missing work, parties or other appointments in order to work out
  • Working out with an injury or while sick
  • Becoming unusually depressed if unable to exercise
  • Working out for hours at a time each day
  • Not taking any rest or recovery days
  • Defining self-worth in terms of performance
  • Justifies excessive behavior by defining self as a “special” elite athlete

In Physical Activity for Everyone, the CDC has recommendations for fitting regular exercise into your life at all ages to improve your health. The advice is generally solid–“10 minutes at a time is fine We know 150 minutes each week sounds like a lot of time, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Not only is it best to spread your activity out during the week, but you can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day“–but they do advocate that “More time equals more health benefits: If you go beyond 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity, you’ll gain even more health benefits.”

But when does “more time” become harmful?

If you use exercise to purge or compensate for eating binges (or just regular eating), you could be suffering from exercise bulimia.

Compulsive exercising has to do with control, much the same way people with eating disorders use food as a way to take control of their lives. But, it can turn into an endless workout if you’re not careful since most folks never feel satisfied with their bodies or their fitness levels, no matter how much they exercise.

The Danger

Exercising too much can cause all kinds of problems including:

  • Injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
  • Low body fat – this may sound good but, for women, it can cause some serious problems. Exercising too much can cause a woman’s period to stop which can cause bone loss
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis
  • Reproductive problems
  • Heart problems

This all sounds extreme, but in the video above and featured on CBS News is the story of one young woman who suffered from this disorder and her entire life was impacted. She explains that she has “more health problems than someone who is overweight because [she] was underweight…[and] exercising herself to death. Her bones had weakened to the equivalent of a 65-year-old female. She suffered from osteoporosis, a stress fracture and lost her period for eight years.” How horrible. Reading all this, I realize I have gone through times when I have bordered on exercise bulimia. There have been periods in my life where everything feels so out of control that I begin to exercise constantly to try to simultaneously control and escape everything that is going on around me. I will skip events, miss out on time with friends, and spend hours exercising (even when my body is telling me not to, because it is tired and worn down) for long stretches of time (days, weeks, months). Luckily, these stints usually end when I get my external life somewhat under control and/or when my body gives me an unmistakable sign that it’s had enough. But what if it spiraled completely out of control? Would anyone notice? What can be done to help people suffering with this?

This “startling” form of bulimia is of particular concern, [an expert] says, because it happens in plain sight and doesn’t involve the hidden vomiting-to-purge-calories marking the form of bulimia more people are familiar with, making exercise bulimia hard to recognize, and insidious.

In addition, she points out, eating disorders in general have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Try to get them to see that they are allowing exercise to disproportionately occupy time and space in their life.   Smith noted that, “Unlike (with) classic bulimia, exercise bulimia is almost just as common in men as it is in women. Exercise bulimia is not about the person wanting to improve their health or train for a specific event. They exercise for the sake of exercise.”

This is definitely something to be aware of, especially as we celebrate “Fitness Frenzy” week. Have you or anyone you know suffered with this? What are the healthy ways you personally approach exercise?

(Image courtesy of Directory Journal)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2011 2:33 am

    Ahhh… this is something near and dear to my heart:) I can vouch for both the insidiousness and harmfulness of this disorder. I truly think this is society’s last socially sanctioned ED (although I suppose a case could be made for anorexia as well) and it frightens me. I have to keep reminding myself of this: “Exercise bulimia is not about the person wanting to improve their health or train for a specific event. They exercise for the sake of exercise.” and be on constant guard that I don’t slip back into bad habits…

  2. Sexy Curmudgeon permalink
    November 10, 2011 5:13 am

    Wow, I think I’ve discussed this issue a lot with people, unsure of what label to give it – I’m still not sure if “bulimia” is completely suitable, but its seems that, especially in higher income brackets, this is becoming an increasingly common problem. It also seems that the forms this is taking may be most related to the need to control other parts of one’s life – I recall discussing with a friend about how we have seen this form of control with people who choose extremely limiting diets, such as Macrobiotic or raw. They don’t necessarily eat too little, but by spending a disproportionate amount of time micromanaging everything that they do eat, similar to the exercise, it become something that contrarily has the ability to consume their lives.

  3. November 11, 2011 12:44 pm

    It’s hard to categorize a person’s behavior in this realm, even when it’s your own. At the university where one of my friends teaches, they have begun monitoring the students’ gym usage (by putting some sort of alert on the card reader they swipe their ID to get in/out) because some (female) students were exercising “excessively” for weight loss/control. I remember 15 years ago (when I was a fat and “happy” — yeah, right — 200-lb. couch potato) being fascinated, train-wreck style, by my 105-lb. SIL who gained *14* pounds in pregnancy, delivered a full term 5 lb. baby and then tore out her episiotomy stitches by running on her treadmill three days after delivery. “She has a problem!” I recall the rest of the family whispering to each other. However…fast forward to 2009 by which point I had lost 65-70 lbs. and become (and still am) a nutrition nut/gym rat…when I routinely turned down weeknight invitations for a girls’ night out with neighborhood friends because I absolutely refused to miss a 7pm kickboxing class, *I* found myself being accused of the same…and I disagree. For me, that class was a more important priority than silly socializing and lots of empty calories and I didn’t see why it was odd or troubling that I chose the class over the bar…especially because I also have two school age children at home with whom I wanted to spend that after-gym time, and because I wasn’t a big drinker to begin with and don’t particularly enjoy being around bars (I don’t drink at all now). I still and always will make exercise a very high daily priority because it is “better for me” than any of the other things I could be doing with that hour or so a day…other than the needs of my family, it comes first on my list of things to do. If I know I have a hectic, in-the-car-all-day type of day coming up and that means the only time I will have to work out is very early morning, so be it…I’ll get up at 4:30 and get in 45 minutes on the treadmill in the basement and feel that much better about the busy day ahead. And I DO feel troubled/unsettled on the rare days I haven’t been able to fit in even a short workout…does that make me an “exercise bulimic”? I don’t know. But if it does, I’d rather be that than go back to being fat.

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