Exercise Bulimia – What’s Healthy When It Used to Be a Problem?

Contributor: Carrie A. Decker, Naturopathic physician

Row of people working out on treadmillsAlthough classically classified as the disorders of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, eating disorders and their patterns can have infinite levels of variation. Classifications such as these help providers to understand the primary aspects of dysfunction such that appropriate treatment plans can be sought.

Within this anorexia nervosa can be a binge-eating/purging type or purely a restricting type; bulimia nervosa and binging can be more or less frequent and night eating can also be a problem; and with any of these purging can be a behavior that occurs without a binge precipitating the event.

One behavior that also can occur with varying levels in all types of eating disorders is the overuse of exercise as a means of purging. And just like purging, over-exercising can occur in absence of a binge and is another common means to further control or lose weight.

When Exercise Isn’t a Part of Being Healthy

Exercising in its own right is a healthy behavior. Exercise is also often lacking in many people’s lives, and there often is a perception that one will be healthier if more exercise can be included. Exercise helps to: decrease heart disease and type-2 diabetes, exercise mayimprove cognitive function, mood, sleep, appetite, and many other things.

However, when an individual with an eating disorder uses exercise, it rarely is with focus on the healthful benefits, and often is in excess of what is healthy.

Exercise Bulimia

Sport activityExercise bulimia is the term often used to describe the use of exercise as a purging behavior in compensation for excess eating. It may be somewhat of a misnomer, as the word bulimia means literally “ox hunger.”

For convenience and to fully encompass the possible uses of exercise within an eating disorder the term over-exercising will be used here, as it is not just individuals with bulimia who fall into these types of behaviors.

How Over-Exercising Can Show

Over-exercising is a behavior that can occur in many forms. It can mean exercising a couple hours a day, exercising when injury or illness should prevent it, or needing to exercise an exact amount of time to compensate for caloric consumption.

Over-exercising can also have many aspects of minutia outside of these larger themes. Exercise can be a means of avoiding other things which need to be done, exercise can be prioritized above necessary sleep, and exercise can even get in the way of communication and intimacy with a partner or close friend.

Exercise can go from being a healthy way of dealing with emotions and stress to being the only thing that is done rather than seeking other healthy patterns of coping.

Exercising Can Still Be a Part of Recovery

cheerful young athletes jogging autumn morningJust as eating disorders can have infinite levels of variations, so does recovery. Exercising still can be a part of a well rounded healthy life, even if it once was a problem for some. Not competing in races or behaviors that tend to drive over-exercising may be necessary as these often also inspire a drive for thinness.

It may be important at different points in recovery to take a step back and abstain from exercise (to the level of exertion) and just include general activities of movement such as shorter walks or gentle yoga. These activities are also very therapeutic and help to moderate stress and connect the mind with body.

Walking meditation or earth walking (also known as grounding, but literally barefoot walking in connection with the earth) can also be very healing.

Knowing to Take a Break from Exercise

Often it is in the minutia of exercise that it is difficult to determine if it is a problem or not. If troubling thoughts come up or one becomes aware that exercise is interfering with sleep or relationships, it may be time to take a break.

As with many behaviors, for an individual with a history of over-exercising as a problem, taking a day (or a week) off is often the best solution. It often is an ongoing part of recovery to assess and reassess if behaviors are helpful or not, and exercise will often come up as one of these.

It is a part of recovery to open life up to alternative options, including giving yourself the choice of exercising or not. The ability to give yourself a day off and take it easy should be equally celebrated as a 5-mile run or an hour at the gym!

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or someone you loved struggled with exercise bulimia? How do you approach finding balance in exercise?

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

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 10th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com