Exercise Bulimia is a newly recognized eating disorder, characterized by a compulsion to purge calories through excessive exercise. It is also known as “compulsive exercise” or “exercise addiction.”
Bulimia Nervosa is traditionally identified by the purging of calories through vomiting after eating. With Exercise Bulimia, sufferers feel a similar desire to purge calories, but use rigorous exercise as their method.
Symptoms of Exercise Bulimia include:
- Inflexibility as to time of day and mode of exercise
- Exercise even when sick or injured
- Prioritizing exercise over social dates, family functions, work, or school
- Intense fear at states of rest
- Intense anxiety at situations where preferred method of exercise is unavailable
- Intense guilt when forced to stray from exercise routine
- Refusal to eat if unable to exercise
Health risks of Exercise Bulimia are similar to that of Anorexia Nervosa, as many Exercise Bulimics are at a very low weight. If accompanied by disordered eating, this condition can complete the female athlete triad (loss of menstrual cycle, osteoporosis, and disordered eating). The risks are especially great if the individual is not getting adequate nutrition, leading to the possibility of heart failure.
Other health risks include joint injuries, tendonitis, exhaustion, fainting, muscle tears, and dehydration.
Exercise Bulimia is sometimes difficult to diagnose, especially because many doctors encourage their patients to stay fit and active. Many cases of Exercise Bulimia may be overlooked as professionals do not always examine their patients’ regimented exercise routine. While it is true that regular exercise is a key component of health, it is important to distinguish the motivation behind the drive to work out.
Working out for the purpose of burning calories from a recent meal, or out of the fear/guilt surrounding fat and weight could be indicators of Exercise Bulimia. I encourage my clients to work out because it feels good! Finding an activity they enjoy and sticking with it because it helps their bodies feel limber and alive-these are good reasons to exercise. Working out should be a pleasurable experience, a way to nourish and care for the body, not a method of punishing or purging.
It is worth noting that Exercise Bulimia does not always manifest in a low weight. The key components of Exercise Bulimia are behavioral and mental. An overweight individual who works out excessively, refuses to take rest days, and feels guilty if she eats a cookie and is forced to skip a day of her routine, could still be suffering from Exercise Bulimia and would benefit from treatment.
Treatment for Exercise Bulimia is similar to treatment for other eating disorders. A team of professionals including a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, dietitian, and an eating disorder sensitive fitness professional should treat the individual with Exercise Bulimia. Like other eating disorders, there is typically an underlying psychological or emotional condition that needs to be addressed, such as depression or anxiety.
If you think you or a loved one could have Exercise Bulimia, resources such as the National Eating Disorders Association (nationaleatingdisorders.org) offer a referral service and guidance in finding a specialist in your area. Another great resource is American Addiction Centers (americanaddictioncenters.org). They have a helpful guide about eating disorders along with many resources to find the best treatment.