Exercise Bulimia

Exercise bulimia is the name given to a form of compulsive or obsessive exercise, where the exercise is used as a means of purging calories to compensate for bingeing (or even just for regular eating). In other words, exercise is being used compulsively to control weight.

It often goes undetected as, to the on-looker, the individuals affected seem to be merely very focused on health and fitness. Weight may not necessarily be very low because when you exercise compulsively your body compensates by slowing down metabolically.

One of the signs that exercise is becoming compulsive is that the person affected will have begun to schedule their lives more and more around exercise, missing social engagements and even missing work and appointments in order to work out.

Other warning signs might include:

  • Working out for hours at a time each day or not taking any rest or recovery days.
  • Working out even if you are injured or feeling unwell or exhausted.
  • Becoming depressed, irritable, behaving irrationally if you can’t get a work out in.
  • Experiencing strong feelings of guilt and anxiety when unable to exercise.
  • Never feeling satisfied with your level of fitness or achievement.
  • Valuing yourself in terms of physical fitness and appearance, of achievement and performance rather than in terms of inner qualities.
  • Giving priority to your exercise schedule before attending to relationships.

Some physical consequences of compulsive exercise:

  • Increased risk of injury (such as stress fractures, tendonitis, joint and ligament injuries).
  • Fatigue.
  • Dehydration.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Arthritis.
  • Heart problems.
  • Hormonal disturbances (loss of libido, irregular or no menstruation) and reproductive problems.
  • Poorer physical and mental performance overall.

Psychological consequences:

  • Low self esteem.
  • Perfectionist, black and white thinking.
  • Depression, anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Rigidity.
  • Withdrawal from relationships.
  • Social isolation.
  • Inability to derive joy from eating or from exercise

To overcome exercise bulimia, help can be obtained from a number of sources:

GP
To assess and monitor the physical impact of excessive exercise (and of any other harmful behaviours).

Therapist
To look at the emotional issues that underlie the compulsion to exercise; to explore the motivation behind your behaviours; to explore attitudes and beliefs around exercise, your body and your health and how these influence your feelings and your behaviour; to help you to reduce your emotional and physiological dependence on exercise.

Nutritionist
To advise on how the cycle of eating/ purging through exercise is affecting the metabolism and to advise on how to rehabilitate and rebalance the metabolism; to help you to redress the balance between nutrition and exercise in your life.

The use of a diary to record both food intake and exercising behaviours can be a very helpful recovery tool.

If you are a regular attender at a gym/fitness club, it would be helpful for you to talk to your trainer/ instructor and seek their support in overcoming your problem.