Disordered Exercise, Eating Disorders and Sports Therapy

Female athlete stretching

Disordered exercise is one possible symptom of an eating disorder. This symptom is most common in individuals with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. While exercise is beneficial for mental and physical health, abuse of exercise can be physically and emotionally damaging [1].

Some signs of disordered exercise include compulsive exercise (exercising even if sick or injured); feeling significantly distressed if unable to exercise; or exercising in order to change body shape or size. Disordered exercise may also negatively impact someone’s ability to participate in school, work, or social responsibilities. In people with eating disorders, exercise is often used to cope with negative emotions or to change their appearance [2].

It can be difficult in eating disorder recovery to heal your relationship to movement. Taking steps to develop healthy beliefs and exercise behaviors is important in maintaining recovery.

Abuse of exercise can be difficult to identify because of society’s emphasis on exercise benefits without guidance regarding individual needs. If exercise is being used to cope with negative emotions, it is going to be harder to transform our relationship to it.

This is because exercise is being used to regulate rather than sort through distressing feelings. Those with disordered exercise behaviors are more likely to have more severe eating disorders and higher chances of relapse [2].

Standard eating disorder treatment often includes traditional talk therapy, group therapy, medical supervision, and nutritional counseling. Researchers are exploring alternative treatment methods in order to support people recovering from disordered exercise. According to Zeeck et al., treating this symptom includes changing behavior, emotions, and beliefs about exercise [2].

Woman struggling with Disordered ExerciseZeeck et al. (2020) created a sports therapy program aimed at helping people with eating disorders address the quality and quantity of their exercise. It is important to examine both for an optimal chance for recovery.

Quality of exercise refers to someone’s emotional experience associated to exercise. An example would be having high anxiety related to exercise. It is important to sort through the quality of exercise because someone may engage in a seemingly normal amount of movement, but the emotions associated make it dysfunctional.

In comparison, quantity refers to how much exercise someone is doing. There is a level of exercise that is considered unhealthy, regardless of that person’s feelings about it [2]. The program consisted of the following: increasing awareness of exercise-related beliefs and behaviors, choosing movement based on enjoyment, supporting healthy exercise behavior, and reducing exercise-related perfectionism.

This type of therapeutic approach is unique and is best done in combination with standard eating disorder treatment [2]. Treating dysfunctional exercise is often difficult for professionals, so Zeeck et al. (2020) recommends that professionals have a dual understanding of eating disorders and healthy exercise behavior.


[1] Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M. D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Urbán, R., & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: Symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance use & Misuse, 47(4), 403-417. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/10.3109/10826084.2011.639120

[2] Zeeck, A., Schlegel, S., Jagau, F., Lahmann, C., & Hartmann, A. (2020). The freiburg sport therapy program for eating disorders: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8(31), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00309-0

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published September 3, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 3, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.