When Exercise is Part of an Eating Disorder

Woman Compulsively Exercising

Many messages about health and wellness are skewed in the distorted perception of the media.  This includes messages that are promoted about nutrition and exercise.  In light of the obesity epidemic that America has recently seen, the constant drone from the media has been pushing towards extreme ends of the spectrum in regards to losing weight, dieting, and exercising.  Unfortunately, this has created a backlash within our population, especially in younger generations, where children and adolescents may already be susceptible to developing eating disorders.

Physical activity is an important facet of health that has also become subject to distortion in the name of weight loss.  While exercise is something that has tremendous benefits and can easily be part of a balanced lifestyle, the “all or nothing” mentality that often surrounds habits of wellness has opened the door to the dangerous potential of obsession.

Compulsive exercise, or an addiction to exercise, is an extreme obsession in an individual that results in a need to exercise intensely.  This often goes overlooked in our society, where individuals who are disciplined in training and exercising are often admired and held in high regard.  There are many dangerous correlations with compulsive exercise and eating disorders; in fact, many studies have shown that more than 90% of women who have bulimia nervosa (binge eating with purging) exercise to compensate for binge eating.  Furthermore, many health professionals have reason to believe that younger individuals who compulsively exercise also are more likely to have greater dissatisfaction with their lives, more restricted diets, and a decreased self-esteem/body image [1].

Exercise addiction is more complicated to define as it is often a “gray area”; what may be a suitable level of exercise for one person may be detrimental for another.  However, there are signs that may reveal if you or someone you love may be suffering with compulsive exercise or an exercise addiction.  For example, if the need to exercise is interfering with your ability to carry out daily activities, such as working, caring for a family, or attending school, this is a good indicator that you may be suffering from an exercise addiction.  Other signs to be aware of are as follows:

  • Experiencing feelings of guilt or shame when exercise routines are missed
  • Continuing to exercise even when feeling ill, fatigued, or with injuries.
  • Suffering from injuries resulting from overuse or inadequate rest
  • Feeling lethargic or fatigued
  • For women, loss of regular menstrual periods
  • Avoiding social interactions or commitments to work-out or exercise

Compulsive exercise can become detrimental to your physical and emotional health as well as your relationships and social interactions.  Elevating exercise above other priorities in life can quickly escalate into a dangerous obsession, which in turn makes exercise a harmful rather than beneficial part of your life.

Exercising and participating in physical activities you enjoy should be done out of love and respect for your body, not because of self-hatred or punishment.  When incorporated as part of a balanced lifestyle, exercise can play an important role in keeping your body healthy and strong.  If you are concerned that you may be struggling with compulsive exercise, reach out to a loved one or health professional today to get the necessary help you may need.


[1]: “Compulsive Exercise: Are You Overdoing It?” http://teens.webmd.com/compulsive-exercise

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website.