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Exercise Compulsion and its Dangers

Contributed Article by Remuda Ranch Treatment Team Staff

Bulimia involves binging and purging and often conjures the image of a woman consuming huge quantities of food followed by vomiting to eliminate the unwanted calories. This image is often accurate, but people with bulimia do not always purge through vomiting. Some elect to compensate for their binges through extreme exercise. This is true for some people with anorexia as well. Even when there are no binges and the person is eating restrictively or normally, some people still feel a need to eliminate the calories they eat. For various reasons, individuals may choose exercise as their methods. Some do so because they are simply incapable of inducing vomiting. Others find vomiting aversive. Still others choose exercise because they believe that it is more socially acceptable.

Purging through exercise may keep weight down, but this is not always the case. If an individual binges twice a week and exercises compulsively every day, weight may remain unchanged. But reverse the frequencies of these behaviors and the individual will become overweight.

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  • Extreme or compulsive exercise is dangerous. The most significant dangers of extreme exercise are overuse syndromes such as stress fractures, low heart rate, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis.

    • Stress fractures are micro-fractures of the bone, typically in weight-bearing areas such as feet and lower legs. Stress fractures develop from repetitive, high-impact, weight-bearing aerobic activity. Eating disorder patients, because they often have bone loss from osteopenia or osteoporosis, are particularly susceptible to stress fractures. Often stress fractures do not show up on x-rays but require a bone scan or MRI. Stress fractures limit a woman’s ability to exercise, lead to pain during exercise and long-term pain if not allowed to heal, and increase the risk of major bone fractures which may ultimately promote curvature of the spine. Treatment includes resting the extremity, use of crutches if it is painful to walk, and avoidance of the repetitive activity that caused the fracture. In eating disorder patients with malnutrition, treatment also includes calcium and vitamin D supplementation, weight restoration, and resumption of normal menstruation.
    • Bradycardia, or low heart rate, results from reverse metabolism. In response to rapid weight loss, the body protects itself from further loss by slowing the metabolism. A woman will experience reduced body temperature and a decreased resting heart rate. She may incorrectly perceive her lowered heart rate as positive heart health due to exercise, but the heart has slowed in an effort to expend as few calories as possible. The long-term implications of reduced heart rate are the potential for arrhythmias and the prolonging of the heart’s electrical conduction with possible sudden death.
    • Amenorrhea results from significant and rapid weight loss and leads to osteopenia and osteoporosis-dangerous losses of bone density that may result in other more serious complications.

    Excessive exercising offers a built-in reinforcement: it increases endorphin levels, providing the individual with a sense of well-being. The endorphin levels remain high even though the individual is seriously, and perhaps permanently, compromising their own health. Studies are currently being conducted to ascertain and better understand the addictive nature of exercise.

    In trying to evaluate whether exercise levels have gone from reasonable to excessive, the following questions can be asked:

    1. Do you feel guilty if you miss your workout?
    2. Do you still exercise when you are sick or hurt?
    3. Would you miss going out with friends or spending time with family, just to ensure you got your workout in?
    4. Do you freak out if you miss a workout?
    5. Do you calculate how much to exercise based on how much you eat?
    6. Do you have trouble sitting still because you’re not burning calories?
    7. If you’re unable to exercise, do you feel compelled to cutback what you eat that day?

    Someone who answers “yes” to one or more of these questions may be exercising too much and endangering their health as a result.

    Published Date: August 15, 2009
    Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 13, 2012
    Article Contributed by our Sponsor ~ Remuda Ranch

    Page last updated: October 5, 2012
    Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Information About Eating Disorders

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