This is the second part to the article I wrote last time, which talked about exercise in general and the way that an unhealthy mindset around exercise has infiltrated our society as a whole.
Today I want to talk about exercise and eating disorders.
Like I spoke about two weeks ago, nearly everyone views exercise as something that is healthy, regardless of how it is used. During my recovery from my eating disorder, I told a friend about my compulsive exercise and about how I was trying to challenge it because I was doing x amount of exercise a week because I felt that I had to, and hadn’t been able to stop myself from doing it even when I didn’t want to. She genuinely replied with “Yeah but that’s fine because exercise is good!” Because we have such a warped view about exercise, many people don’t seem to understand how detrimental it is to those with eating disorders, especially when it doesn’t appear to be severe.
Some people with eating disorders push themselves to the extreme when it comes to exercise. Some people exercise for five hours a day, and some more. Some people never let themselves sit down – ever – except when sleeping (and I’ve even known someone to sleep standing up). It is easier for people without eating disorders to understand why this might be a problem, but when you are someone with an eating disorder who exercises in a way that people might perceive as inspiring and healthy; in a way that people might see as #goals; in a way that people aspire to, you may end up with congratulations rather than concern.
For those who have exercise addiction, you can’t just stop when you want to, or give yourself a day off (unless you already have a “scheduled” day/time, and then it must be that day/time and none other). You will miss social events if it coincides with your sessions. You will feel incredibly anxious before exercising, and after the exhilaration of finishing a workout has subsided, you will feel the dread of knowing that in less than 24 hours you will be repeating the same monotonous and exhausting work out. You will continue with your exercise routine however much you don’t want to do it, however tired you feel, or however sick you are. It is not enjoyment that drives someone with exercise addiction: it is the perceived need to do so.
As well as being mentally draining, compulsive exercise (also known an obligatory exercise or in extreme cases, anorexia athletica) can have a negative effect on the body. Firstly, by working out intensely every day, the body is being put under a lot of strain, and is not being given any time to recover, which is needed. Those addicted to exercise will work out even if they are ill or injured, which could have serious consequences to their health, including damage to tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints. When injuries happen and are not given enough rest to heal, this can result in long-term damage. If the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs, muscle can be broken down for energy instead of building muscle. Girls and women could disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies, which can change menstrual cycles and even lead to the absence of them altogether. It can also increase the risk of premature bone loss, which is known as osteoporosis. The most serious risk is the stress that excessively exercising can place on the heart, particularly when someone is also restricting their intake, or using self-induced vomiting to control their weight. Using diet pills or supplements can also increase the risk for heart complications. In worst case scenarios, restrictive eating disorders and compulsive exercise can result in death.
The reasons behind exercise addiction can be complicated when it comes to eating disorders. For many people it is an additional means of furthering and/or quickening weight loss, or it could be the main part of someone’s eating disorder, in order to get “fit” or muscular (anorexia athletica). It could be about control. It could be, like the rest of the eating disorder, a form of distraction from feeling or thinking certain things. It could be part of orthorexia (an obsession with eating “healthy” or “pure” foods and leading “healthy” or “pure” lifestyle). Athletes, dancers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and other people who are fixated with keeping in shape and keeping their weight down for their careers are also susceptible to developing exercise addiction.
Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, exercise addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening obsession, and needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not just a strain on the body but a strain on the mind. It is absolutely exhausting, and completely miserable to experience. It can take up a huge amount of your life and a huge amount of your thoughts, and is extremely unhealthy for your physical and mental health. Whether it is the main part of an eating disorder, a lesser part of an eating disorder, or a disorder on its own, compulsive exercise is serious. It is something that must be challenged and overcome as part of recovery from an eating disorder, and must be ceased until the unhealthy relationship with exercise is broken and remade into something healthy. Only in remission can someone make an informed and healthy decision about whether to restart exercise and how much/what to do in regards to moving their body. Even then, it’s a fine line.
I talk more about a healthy relationship with exercise in part 1.
If you think you may be developing/have developed an addiction to exercise, seek medical help from your GP.
Signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from compulsive exercise include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Not enjoying exercise sessions, but feeling obligated to do them
- Seeming (or being) anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
- Not missing a single workout and possibly exercising twice as long if one is missed
- Seeming (or being) constantly preoccupied with his or her (or your) weight and exercise routine
- Not being able to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
- A significant amount of weightloss
- Increase in exercise after eating more
- Not skipping a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
- Skipping seeing friends, or giving up activities/hobbies to make more time for exercise
- Basing self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
- Never being satisfied with his or her (or your) own physical achievements
- Working out alone, isolated from others, or so that other people are not aware of how much exercise is being done
- Following the same rigid exercise pattern.
- Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly
(sites used for reference and more information: