Exercise bulimia is similar to Anorexia athletica (also known as compulsive exercising or exercise addiction), but is a subset of bulimia in which an individual is compelled to exercise excessively to burn the calories to a level that negatively affects their health. Unlike classic bulimia, the disorder is nearly as common in men as it is in women. The damage of exercise bulimia normally occurs through inadequate rest for athletic recovery compared to exercise levels. If the person eats a normally healthy and adequate diet but exercises in levels they know require higher levels of nutrition, this can also be seen as a form of anorexia. Exercise bulimia is hard to diagnose because some of the symptoms are identical to overtraining, and diagnosis of exercise bulimia is rare in a culture that celebrates trim physiques and a disciplined dedication to workouts. Many compulsive exercisers find they need therapy to help them deal with exercise bulimia.
Characteristics of Exercise Bulimia
Exercise bulimia is classified as a non-purging form of bulimia – the individual does not regularly engage in self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas to rid themselves of the food ingested – but uses exercise as a method of compensation. Exercise bulimia is especially common in those who find it difficult to purge (i.e. vomit/use laxatives), and in men with eating disorders. It is estimated that about 4% of Americans struggle with excessive exercise.
Because of widely-held public acceptance that exercise is healthy, exercise bulimia is often seen as a ‘healthy’ method of compensation. However, the effects of excessive exercise (both psychologically and physically) should not be underestimated, and excessive exercise should not be misunderstood as a safe alternative to vomiting/fasting in those tackling eating issues. It is common for more than one disorder to be diagnosed. While it is true that regular exercise is a key component of health, it is important to distinguish the motivation behind the drive to work out. It is worth noting that Exercise Bulimia does not always manifest in a low weight. The key components of Exercise Bulimia are behavioral and mental.
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:
- Obsessive calorie counting
- Inflexibility as to time of day and mode of exercise
- Exercising while injured or sick
- Not taking any rest or recovery days
- Prioritizing exercise over social dates, family functions, work, or school
- Intense fear at states of rest
- Intense anxiety at situations where preferred method of exercise is unavailable
- Intense guilt when forced to stray from exercise routine
- Refusal to eat if unable to exercise
- Becoming seriously depressed if unable to exercise
- Working out for hours at a time each day
- Defining self worth by performance
- Never being satisfied with athletic achievement
- Constant need for a challenge
- Justifying compulsive behavior as healthy
- Lack of control over fitness habits
- A dangerously low body fat percentage
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–a condition called [[exercise amenorrhea]–which can cause bone loss. Some 25-year-old women with eating disorders have been reported to have the bones of an 80-year-old. Though treating amenorrhea can stop bone loss, “It doesn’t appear that this bone loss is reversible.” Despite these risks, most exercise bulimics never seek treatment, in part because excessive exercise is often viewed as a healthy obsession.
- Muscle tears
- Bone loss and amenorrhea (loss of period due to a low body fat percentage)
- Reproductive problems
- Heart problems
Treatment for Exercise Bulimia is similar to treatment for other eating disorders. A team of professionals including a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, dietitian, and an eating disorder sensitive fitness professional should treat the individual with Exercise Bulimia. Like other eating disorders, there is typically an underlying psychological or emotional condition that needs to be addressed, such as depression or anxiety.
The damage that occurs from excessively (obsessively) working out is mostly from the failure to allow the body to rest a requirement to recover from the strain even smart exercise causes. Resting and giving your body time to repair is extremely important even for a regular workout, so in the case of compulsive exercising, the levels of damage are detrimental to your health.
Exercising is meant to be fun, healthy and beneficial to your body. It can help reduce stress and anxiety, and supply a healthy endorphin rush after a great workout. However, when someone overuses exercise in a detrimental way, there may signs of addition.