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Exercising and Eating: When to say “No” to over-exercising and “Yes” to basic health

Contributed Article by Heather Hutchinson of Weise Communications, representing Eating Disorder Center of Denver

According to the May 2002 Nutrition Research Newsletter, approximately 80 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa and 55 percent of patients with bulimia nervosa compulsively exercise. Female eating disorder patients who exercise report higher levels of psychological distress and psycho-pathological traits than non-exercisers.

Compulsive exercising is only one of the many facets that can be linked to eating disorders. Compulsive or excessive exercising occurs when an individual repeatedly exercises beyond the requirements of what is considered safe, often times finding time to exercise at any expense. Cutting school, missing work or even exercising in the middle of the night can become routine. Although compulsive exercise is not always a symptom of an eating disorder, many individuals who suffer from eating disorders exercise excessively to alleviate feelings of anxiety and guilt from eating or binging. Burning calories, achieving a certain body type, meeting athletic goals or giving themselves permission to eat can be reasons for compulsive exercising.

Satisfaction ceases to exist for compulsive exercisers as they immediately look for the next physical task to accomplish. Often times, criticism of the individual results in training sessions then taking place at unusual places and times, such as in the shower or in bed. This trend leads to higher anxiety and guilt over their actions as calories continue to be counted and health concerns continue to rise.

Exercising compulsively bears great physical risks, adding to the already long list of health concerns associated with eating disorders. One of the greatest concerns is the high physical demand caused by compulsive exercising. Heart problems, osteoporosis, severe dehydration, amenorrea (loss of menstrual cycle), reproductive problems and stress fractures can result from a lack of rest and recuperation of the body. Permanent damage can also occur to muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints due to unnecessary repetition. Compulsive exercise often leads to malnourishment as a result of the physical activity simulating purging, where the body is being deprived of nourishment. This also leaves compulsive exercisers prone to infections and fatigue.

Eve A. Wood, M.D., medical director at the Eating Disorder Center of Denver (EDCD), identifies college fitness centers as prime targets for compulsive exercisers. “University fitness centers are often open extended hours and available for students undergoing extreme life, social and often physical changes. University fitness centers can also provide intervention measures including health programs, nutrition classes and stress reduction classes,” said Dr. Wood. According to Adolescent Eating Disorder Program of Mass., within one to three percent of the population diagnosed with an eating disorder, approximately 85 to 95 percent of these people are using a fitness center.

While fitness centers may not be the cause of excessive exercise, they are prime locations for its practice. Pressures to fit a certain body type can alter an individual’s mindset and routine physical activity and compulsivity around exercise can develop. Compulsive exercising has detrimental health affects and is a serious issue, often times overlooked by individuals, families and friends.

“It is important for everyone, but specifically those with eating disorders to become aware of the health concerns of excessive exercising,” says Dr. Tamara Pryor, clinical director of EDCD. “There is no better day than today to talk about it and start implementing a plan for a healthier future.”

Recognizing that part of a healthy lifestyle includes activity in moderation is just one key ingredient to prevent compulsive exercising. Setting long-range goals and taking part in activities that are enjoyable can help prevent excessive exercise. Taking a day off from physical exercise is also important in allowing the body to recover from physical activities.

About Eating Disorder Center of Denver
Established in 2001, Eating Disorder Center of Denver (EDC-D) is one of the nation’s foremost centers for the diagnosis and treatment of the full range of eating disorders. EDC-D is committed to empowering individuals 18 years of age and older suffering with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and related disorders to help them achieve and sustain recovery. A multidisciplinary team of board-certified psychiatrists, physicians, clinicians, family therapists and registered dietitians work together to create a specialized, evidence-based treatment plan for each patient. For additional information about EDC-D, visit, call 303-771-0861, visit us on Twitter at EDCDenver or friend us on Facebook.

Published Date: August 10, 2010
Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 22, 2011

Page last updated: October 13, 2012
Published on, Online Resources for Eating Disorders

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